Wednesday, December 16, 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld


This is another fact/fiction mashup. Is that all anybody is writing these days? Unlike Daphne and The 19th Wife, both of which place a real-life person in a partially fictionalized setting, American Wife takes a more traditional approach; it’s a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush, but she is never identified as Laura Bush, and instead is called Alice Blackwell. Her girlhood is transferred from Texas to Wisconsin, her husband is called Charlie Blackwell, and she’s given one daughter instead of two. Otherwise many of the details are based on the circumstances of Laura Bush’s life, including a tragic automobile accident that occurred in her teens, her career as a school librarian, and her obvious ambivalence about her role as First Lady of the U.S.

I tried to approach this book purely as a work of fiction, and as such, it worked beautifully. I really loved reading it, and I loved Alice Blackwell. I could even see why Alice married Charlie, and why she stayed with him. Their relationship is complex and multi-layered, like most marriages. It’s a very mature, insightful book, considering the relative youth of the author (who is in her early 30’s now).

The trouble comes when you think about the story in light of what you know about the Bushes. Laura Bush was always an enigma as First Lady. Because I had no particular preconceived ideas about her, it was easy for me to connect with Alice Blackwell. If Laura Bush is indeed at all like her fictional alter ego (which seems to be true, according to independent sources) then I think I would very much enjoy a long afternoon with her.

But I really didn’t like having good feelings about George Bush, even a fictionalized George Bush, and that made me uncomfortable. Again, because this is a good book, Charlie Blackwell is well-drawn; he’s crude, impulsive, and judgmental, but he’s also warm and funny, and he loves Alice and their daughter with all his heart. I just kept saying to myself “it’s only a novel, it’s okay to enjoy it.”

A lot has been written about this book. The piece I liked best was published in Salon back in the fall of 2008. It’s a long interview with the author, Curtis Sittenfeld, and in it she addresses a lot of the issues that preoccupied me as I was reading the book. Here is the link.

(Book 43, 2009)

9 comments:

Vintage Reading said...

I loved reading this book, too although I didn't think I'd be interested in a fictional portrayal of LB. I think Prep is Sittenfeld's best novel so far and The Man of My Dreams was very good, too. She is certainly a young writer to watch.

Katie said...

I am really looking forward to reading this! Great review; good things to think about.

Diane said...

I've had the audio version on my IPOD for a while. Glad to read you seemed to enjoy it; thanks

Frank Wilson said...

Why, exactly, would you not "like having good feelings about George Bush" - presuming the feelings are genuine? Or is it that the novel in this respect challenged your preconceptions, and perhaps that is what you didn't like? I had the privilege once of being at a White House luncheon hosted by Laura Bush. Truly a first-rate person.

Amused said...

I'm glad you liked it as it has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time and I've been putting off reading it! Maybe I should pick it up soon!

Becky Holmes said...

Frank, that is a really good question. I think it's because I felt manipulated by the book. Were my good feelings really toward George Bush, or toward the fictional Charlie Blackwell? If I met the real George Bush would I like him, the way I liked Charlie? It was hard to separate them.

You are lucky to have met with Laura Bush. I would love to have the chance to do this.

Aethelred W said...

I thought "American Wife" a compelling read, and found it, mutatis mutandis, true to life, based on all I've read about the Bush clan.

I understand Laura's autobiography is in the works. Will it portray her essence better than did "American Wife"? Somehow I doubt it.

Mrs. B. said...

I thought this book was ok. Certainly it isn't my favourite Sittenfeld. I loved Prep and it's really hard to beat that one. Still American Wife is an interesting book if you've ever wondered 'what could Laura be thinking?'

prashant said...
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