American Wife

American Wife is the story of a quiet, mature, and passive girl of modest, middle-class origins who falls in love with a boisterous, childish, and narcissistic blue-blood of unlimited privilege and means (but stunted emotional and intellectual growth). That man eventually becomes the president of the United States, and Alice finds herself in the curious and somewhat surreal position of being a "secret" liberal in a very conservative space. In other words, it's a semi-fictional re-imagining of the life of Laura Bush. While the names of all the key players of the administration have been changed, as well as locations and some other historical/geographical details, the actual persons on which the story is based are immediately recognizable.

There's a strong sentimentality for the Midwest, which, being from Michigan, I identified with and appreciated. The Great Lakes states aren't the sexiest setting, but they're evocative in their own, esoteric way. And I loved the character of young Alice. Sittenfeld created a girl who, even in grade school, has such a strong, sure sense of herself (and of right and wrong) that one can't help but root for her - even when her life grows more tragic by the minute. Indeed, the disastrous and disturbing set of circumstance on which the entire plot hinges is established with a series of scenes so vivid and unexpected and horrifying and believable, I couldn't look away (I was reminded of The Dive From Clausen's Pier). It was these moments like those, that constitute Alice's formative experiences, that I found most compelling. I loved watching her perspective on life form. There are also some intriguing supporting female characters, though at times it felt like all they did was talk about the men in their lives. So much for the Bechdel test.

But while the story remains her own, the overbearing presence of Charlie (representative of George W. Bush), necessarily sucks away some of the momentum of Alice's narrative. Though I guess that's largely the point. Alice is a woman who has perfected the art of self-sublimation. She stifles her own needs and impulses in order to support those of her husband. At any rate, that's where I lost heart. Alice as a protagonist is incredibly appealing in her younger years. But the passivity with which she accepts her husband's increasingly bad (and at times abusive) behaviors was hard for me to stomach. The more selfless, generous, and gentle-hearted she appears, the more selfish and mean Charlie seems to become.

The last fifth of the book felt disappointingly abridged to me. Rather than flesh out the story of Charlie's governorship and journey to the White House, Sittenfeld chose to condense those years into a sort of montage that, while consistent and colored with enough detail to carry the story to its present-day closure, felt abbreviated. And, this must be said, a good portion of the book's closing feels like one big apologia for W's warmongering. Yes, there's introspection on the obvious, prolonged cognitive dissonance with which Laura Alice must grapple in her role as first lady. But Sittenfeld is far too forgiving, far too lax in her approximation of Alice's complicity.

So sayeth this liberal, anyway.

Still, on balance, a good, compelling read that I'd recommend.

Hear the NPR interview with Curtis Sittenfeld about American Wife here.