I wouldn't normally pick up a biography of Laura Bush, but the thinly veiled fictional account of the former first lady that Curtis Sittenfeld has constructed in American Wife sure is fun, in a gossipy kind of way.
In fact, this is one of the most absorbing novels I've read in awhile and I read it slowly, so I could savor all 555 pages.
Alice Lindgren, Sittenfeld's Laura Bush stand-in, is a sweet, bookish, middle-class girl from a small town who grows up to be a school librarian and a Democrat. (Just like the Laura Bush!) She marries Charlie Blackwell, the ne'er-do-well son of a wealthy Republican family who turns his life around and follows his father into politics. (Just like George Bush!)
I'd reveal more of the plot, but if you know anything about George and Laura Bush, and you've been paying attention to the news over the last decade, you can figure it out. It's not subtle.
The veiled part is that most of this occurs in Wisconsin, not Texas. They have one daughter, not two. And Charlie goes to Princeton, not Yale. Clever, huh!
Some of the things that happen to Alice happened to Laura Bush but most of it comes from Sittenfeld's imagination. And she's created a sympathetic character: Alice is thoughtful and likeable. As for Charlie and the rest of the Blackwells, not so much. They mostly come off like snooty, clueless rich people.
Sittenfeld makes Alice a compelling, if passive, protagonist. I was struck by how uneasy she seems with her own life, how little control she's had over the events that have defined her, the amount of time she spends questioning decisions she's made. It's kind of sad but very human, I guess.
And Alice is so quiet and unassuming I couldn't figure out what she saw in Charlie, who drinks too much and is a bit of an insensitive lout. I guess he's also fun and kind of charming at times. They do have some pretty steamy sex scenes. But he seems the opposite of everything she is, of everything she believes in. They really do come from two different worlds.
In return for marrying him, Alice is thrust into this unfamiliar life of immense wealth and privilege, of snobby country clubs and private schools and summer homes. I don't think she ever really feels a part of it. She's always trying to do little good deeds on the side to somehow make up for the privileges.
Then, when Charlie is elected to public office and Alice finds herself in the glare of the spotlight, she feels embarrassed by the attention and uncomfortable with the scrutiny. In that sense, I wonder if she's like a lot of women (and probably some men) who are married to politicians.
I'm sure on some level, Alice enjoys her life, or at least she's made peace with it, even though she doesn't seem particularly happy. I couldn't help but wonder whether the real Laura Bush has felt the same uneasiness, which I guess is part of the book's attraction.
Intellectually, I know Sittenfeld isn't really describing the life and innermost thoughts of Laura Bush. Especially in the last section, I think Alice acts in a way that Laura never would. I'm also not convinced that the Bushes disagree as much politically as Alice and Charlie do. I think Alice is more liberal than Laura.
But emotionally, in a way that sometimes made me feel uncomfortable, like I had no business peering into this woman's subconscious, I did wonder just how close Sittenfeld had gotten to the truth.