Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife
American Wife, loosely based on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush, was my Book Club’s last choice. This novel is told from the point of view of Alice Blackwell, formerly Lindgren, and most of the novel is dedicated to Alice growing up and becoming Mrs. Blackwell, and only the last part, maybe one fifth of the novel, is about Alice’s life as a First Lady. My Book Club friends have been bothered by this unbalance and felt the ending rushed and impersonal, while I thought that Curtis Sittenfeld voluntarily spared us the public figure, since it is one that we know or feel we know, in order to show who is the woman behind the facade is, a woman who had a life, opinions, and interests, before disappearing behind the public figure of the First Lady.
My Book Club friends found it disturbing to know that the novel was inspired by the life of Laura Bush, they would have preferred to be able to enjoy a fiction without having to wonder whether this or that event occurring to Alice also happened to Laura Bush or if it is fictional. While I also spent my reading time wondering, I felt, on the contrary, that it gave the novel an added interest to wonder about which part of the novels were pure fiction (I promised myself I would be looking into it –I know she really was responsible in an accident that killed one of her school friends but did she have an abortion? was she really a Democrat?-, but I have already moved on to another novel, and so far, haven’t looked for information).
While we all enjoyed the novel, to a certain extent, I think I enjoyed it more than my Book Club friends. My enthusiasm about this novel stems from the fact that I thought Curtis Sittenfeld is very talented when it comes to describing a milieu, she gives us a privileged insight into the life of this upper-class family with big political ambitions. I enjoyed the way she portrayed the Blackwell family, viewed in the eyes of a young middle-class woman with whom the reader can more easily identify. Sittenfeld sketches brilliantly the unaffected eccentricity of this Wisconsin family with its strengths, its flaws, its self-assured ways and utter ignorance of what life is like for “normal” people. Prep, her first novel, reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, and Sittenfeld is a writer who, like Wolfe, or like Douglas Kennedy, is able to give us an insight into a group of people whose characteristics and flaws she knows how to reproduce perfectly without caricaturing, but, maybe because she is a woman, she manages to do it without cynicism, unlike authors like Wolfe or Kennedy. Her portrayal of Alice Lindgren, a woman of contradictions, who fell in love with a man so utterly different from her, in social class, upbringing, experience, convictions, or ambitions is truly fascinating.
To defend the last part, which my Book Club friends did not enjoy, I thought that, if it is less lively than the rest (because instead of being a linear narration, it goes back and forth and sums the presidency years in few pages), it does a good job showing the dilemma the First Lady is confronted to, between her personal convictions and her loyalty and love for her husband. Also, I have read reviews in which some people felt that the transformation of Charlie Blackwell from a sympathetic looser and alcoholic into a born again intent on becoming a president is not explained. I personally think it unsurprising that someone who is trying to overcome an addiction would turn to religion, and as for the fact that he aimed for Congress and then for presidency, it is explained by the example of his family, and renewed focus, once his addiction is beaten, as well as his obsession with legacy, which is mentioned earlier in the novel.
I also liked American Wife because the author cleverly showed how nothing is completely black or white in politics, how easy it is, with hindsight, to judge and condemn, and while my Book Club friends were bothered by the fact that Sittenfeld made us see Charlie Blackwell (and by association George W. Bush) in a more sympathetic way, it just made me feel some compassion, and, despite the questionable decisions made during his presidency, I just realized how I wouldn’t have liked to have been in those shoes (his or hers), in such difficult times…