Wednesday, April 29, 2009
weekly book review: american wife, by curtis sittenfeld
Seeing how I've never been a huge fan of either Laura Bush or books with women wearing big, fluffy white bridal gowns on the cover, I probably would have never gotten around to reading American Wife had I not had my socks knocked off my Curtis Sittenfeld's previous novel, PREP. However, since PREP was so awesome and Sittenfeld such a talented writer gifted with both Didion-esque prose and a knack for brilliant characterization, I was hot to read American Wife despite all the reasons I might have otherwise passed it by. And as was expected, Ms. Sittenfeld did not disappoint.

American Wife takes the skeleton of Laura Bush's life and personality and, around it, builds the fictional story of Alice Blackwell, a polite, bookish woman from a liberal, middle class background who marries a charismatic man from a powerful Republican family. From what I've learned, the stories of Alice Blackwell and Laura Bush are as dissimilar as they are similar, but it was, of course, the similarities I found most intriguing.

Like Ms. Bush, Alice Blackwell is a Democrat, an educator, and a voracious reader who, perhaps inexplicably, falls for a staunch Republican who, though funny and lovable, has a reputation for being a bit of a screw up. Like Ms. Bush, the primary tragedy of Alice's life occurs in high school when she accidentally kills one of her classmates in a automobile accident. Laura Bush's rumored abortion makes the book, as does George W.'s alcoholism, subsequent religious reawakening, and tumultuous presidency. But rather than being a true autobiography (which has been done before), Sittenfeld takes these truths and imagines the story behind them. Thanks to Alice, readers can understand how a woman can love a person she generally disapproves of, what it's like to be one of the most famous people on earth, and what literate Laura finds so appealing about George.

I have no idea what Sittenfeld's politics are, but she treats all of her characters with the utmost respect while refusing to shy away from some of the most embarrassing details of the former first family's history. And yet, this isn't really the story of a First Lady as much as it's the story of a very complex woman whose perfectly average life takes a very unusual turn. With the exception of the ending (Which sort of sucked, to be frank. It was rushed and Alice became a massive whiner), American Wife is an absorbing read. It's an ambitious, unusual page turner, regardless of your politics.

American Wife
Curtis Sittenfeld
2008, 558 pages (Paperback)

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