American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

It seems silly to admit this, but I have always felt a bit of a kinship with Laura Bush. She’s a librarian, you know, and maybe it’s ridiculous to think that she and I would have anything in common, but I feel like Mrs. Bush and I could drink lemonade together and talk about books. I think I could drink beer with Hillary Clinton, and maybe Michelle Obama would have a coffee date with me, but Laura Bush and I could have a book club. Stop laughing. You know you would want to be invited.

Laura Bush’s Wikipedia entry has the basics about her. Here are a few interesting tidbits: she has a ridiculously high approval rating, she has worked on issues dealing with education and literacy as well as women’s health, she was registered as a Democrat before marrying President Bush, she has said that she doesn’t want Roe v. Wade overturned. She is so interesting to me, so difficult to read. What have the past few years been like for her?

Curtis Sittenfeld, it seems, feels the same way. She says that after writing that piece and noting that Laura Bush’s life sounds kind of like a novel . . . she decided to write that novel. The question for me was whether I would read it, because my reaction to Curtis Sittenfeld’s novels has been pretty mixed. She can tell a story, I think, but she can’t end it well. I also think, based on the review I linked to in that previous post, that she is maybe not a very nice person. And I always feel a little bit awkward when I read a book by someone I don’t feel is a very nice person.

But, in the end, the reviews of American Wife were interesting enough that I thought maybe I would give it a try. I worried more than a little bit about the ending, about whether it would work, but I wanted to like it. I wanted it to work.

So, what you want to know is, did it? I am not completely sure. You know most of the story already, so I won’t bore you with it. Essentially, a young girl grows up in Wisconsin with her family, lives a quiet life, becomes a librarian, is swept off her feet by a gentleman from a well-connected family (they’re in the meat industry). He buys a baseball team. He runs for president. She’s the first lady. There’s a terrorist attack and an unpopular war. And she thinks about her life, the life that she claims she lives “in opposition to herself.”

I couldn’t stop turning the pages. It was hugely compelling to me in a lot of ways. I tore through it. Mike kept having to make me come and do things like “decorate the Christmas tree.” (What a mean guy he is.) But in the end, the end was, again, kind of the problem. I think that Curtis Sittenfeld believes in her heart that Alice Blackwell/Laura Bush is better than Charlie Blackwell/George W. Bush, that Alice could have done better, no matter how much she loves Charlie. I think Sittenfeld has also come to believe that Laura Bush is in fundamental disagreement with her husband., though of course a First Lady can’t say such a thing. I have a more balanced view. I think it’s doubtful that George and Laura agree about every political issue. Mike and I don’t agree about everything, my parents didn’t agree about everything. That’s how life is. I don’t think, though, that Laura disagrees with George like Alice disagrees with Charlie.

Maybe she does, though. That’s what fiction is about, asking interesting questions, and that is certainly an interesting question to ask. The problem is that Curtis Sittenfeld so obviously despises George W. Bush, so obviously needs “Alice” to work against him, that she makes that happen in ways that, to me, seemed deeply unrealistic. Curtis Sittenfeld can’t ask that question, because Curtis Sittenfeld can’t be balanced about George W. Bush’s presidency. The last section, the section in the White House, was easily the least compelling section. Before that, we had Alice’s complicated relationship with her grandmother, a tragic car accident in which she killed a classmate, her unhealthy relationship with her dead classmate’s brother (and its tragic results), her outsider view of the Blackwell clan, her struggles with Charlie’s drinking, her life as a parent. I couldn’t stop turning those pages. The White House section, though, left me pretty cold overall.

One of the main problems was that Sittenfeld’s version of “Blackwell” came across to me in several places as simply ungenerous. (Although there are some pretty graphic sex scenes, and she did make Charlie Blackwell pretty awesome in bed. So there is that, I guess.) The thing is, life is complicated. I disagree with George W. Bush on many things, but I recognize that Laura Bush can love George W. Bush, agree with him, and still be a lovely person I admire and want to have a book club with.

So, do I recommend American Wife? It offered me a lot of enjoyment, it is a compelling story, and I cared deeply about the characters. I will give it a rousing . . . sort-of recommendation. With the disclaimer that you can’t blame me if you don’t like the ending, either.

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