Tuesday, April 14, 2009

American Wife

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.


Amanda said...

The idea of writing steamy sex scenes for a thinly veiled biography of Laura Bush is a little disturbing to me. I've read several reviews about this book, and each time I've walked away with a renewed assurance that I never want to pick this book up. There's just too much in it that seems, I don't know, wrong to me.

Coaster Punchman said...

Did you see "W" the movie? Laura is also portrayed somewhat sympathetically in that. This book sounds interesting, although the idea of devoting that much of my spare time to "that man" makes me want to lose my lunch.

Esther said...

Hey Amanda,
Yeah, I know what you mean. I guess the author would say, well it's not "really" Laura Bush. And I've read lots of other fiction in which historical figures make an appearance. I guess the difference is, there's usually some distance between the time they were most famous and when they show up in a novel. This is so current, maybe that's what makes it seem a bit tacky.

OTOH, I have to admit I enjoyed it immensely and not just in a titillating way. Even if you accept that it's 90 percent fiction, it's still a fascinating portrait of a woman who's questioning the choices she's made. Although I'll admit I could have done without some of the steamy sex scenes!

Esther said...

Hey C.P.,
Well, I don't want you to lose your lunch! And truthfully, the book does kind of veer into chick-lit territory, albeit high-class chick lit!

Yes, I did see "W." I think Laura fascinates people because she does come across as more of a cipher, more likeable than her husband. In the novel, you really wonder why she married him and how this guy could ever have been elected!

karigee said...

I had to give up on this halfway through — right after his miraculous sobering up, but then I didn't like "Prep" either. And I don't mind a good sex scene, but YUCK. Too much real life implied in that connection, and the character as written was too much of a doormat for me to even want to empathize with. I was frustrated.

Linz McC said...

I enjoyed this book, but I got annoyed with the character of Alice a little. She seemed so annoyed at being a politician's wife even though she knew that going into it. She wasn't supportive of it at all but married him anyway. Sometimes it felt like a pity party, but an entertaining one, at least.

Esther said...

Thanks for the comments, Kari and Linz!

Yeah, I agree that Alice was kind of a doormat and she should have known what she was getting into. But some people do go through life that way, I guess.

Although she didn't expect Charlie to win that first race for Congress and when he didn't, she probably figured she'd be the wife of a businessman. I'm sure she never thought he'd try politics again.