The first time I saw Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep in a bookstore, I was a little, “Whatever.” The bright, shiny hardcover featured a cute-ish pink and green belt, and I read enough of the description to know its main character was a female student in a snooty boarding school. I believe I uttered a phrase along the lines of, “Like I want to read what some guy has to say about that.”
Ahem. This is where you can feel free to slap me on the side of the head with a frying pan.
Curtis Sittenfeld is not, in fact, a man. I figured this out about two years ago in the book section at Target. It was one of those very loud, “Ohhhh!” moments where the word ‘oh’ is a two-syllable word. And as it turns out, Prep is a fantastic book. I won’t go into great detail about it – all of the reviews and accolades were spot on. I remember being struck by Sittenfeld’s ability to give her narrator such an authentic, consistent voice. Even though Lee, the protagonist, ages over the course of the book, it still felt like the same person throughout. I also thought that Sittenfeld didn’t necessarily go for the easy, obvious ending. I can’t say that it was a terribly Important Book, but still very, very good.
So, fast forward a couple of years, to the day this past summer when I found out that Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, American Wife, was loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. Not out of desire to mock, but rather out of deep admiration for the First Lady. She first detailed her fascination with Laura Bush in a 2004 Salon.com article, “Why I Love Laura Bush.” And after reading that article, I thought that I kind of agreed with Curtis Sittenfeld. I’m a teacher myself, and I almost always feel a sense of camaraderie with anyone who was or currently is in the profession. Besides, haven’t you ever wondered who would fall in love with, and then marry, George W. Bush? On top of that, I had just read Ethan Canin’s America America, so I was on a ‘big American story’ kick. I hadn’t yet tired of politics.
So, the novel itself. The main character’s name is Alice Blackwell, and as the book opens she is lying in bed next to her husband in the White House. It’s one of those middle-of-the-night scenes, and it’s in first-person so you are inside Alice’s head. Sittenfeld is very good at delivering these ‘interior monologues.’ Each of her books features a main character who operates as an ‘outsider’ in their environment. In the case of American Wife, Alice Blackwell is a naive, middle-class, Democratic librarian who marries Charlie Blackwell of the Milwaukee Blackwells. No, Sittenfeld doesn’t actually use the phrase ‘Milwaukee Blackwells,’ but that’s how I kept thinking of them. The Blackwells are a very wealthy, politically connected, and dysfunctional family. The patriarch of the family is the former Governor of Wisconsin. At her first Blackwell family function, Alice is the butt of a loud, bawdy limerick drunkenly delivered by one of Charlie’s brothers. This is to the delight of Charlie’s mother – the Barbara Bush stand-in who comes across as incredibly mean-spirited.
Despite his incompetence and drug and alcohol problems, Charlie goes on to become the President of the United States (after a fit of religious conversion). Yep – the similarities to the Bush family are deliberate and glaring. During the middle-of-the-night introduction, Alice is suffering from a monumental case of self-doubt and blame. “Did I jeopardize my husband’s presidency today? Did I do something I should have done years ago? Or perhaps I did both, and that’s the problem – that I lead a life in opposition to itself.” This, I thought, was an auspicious beginning.
Does the book deliver? Yes and no. I can’t decide if basing a novel on a living First Lady who is still, at least for another month and a half, living in the White House is a phenomenally awesome idea, or a phenomenally bad one. The book is divided into three parts, and the first two are the strongest because they take place in the past. There certainly are some humdingers that you would never guess would happen to Laura Bush. The last part, taking place during the present time, is weaker. Though American Wife is described as ‘loosely based’ on Laura Bush’s life, Part Three far too closely mirrors current events. There is an overbearing Chief of Staff, a war overseas that nobody supports, even a grieving parent protesting his soldier son’s death in a tent in Washington, D.C.. Charlie Blackwell describes himself as a ‘tolerant traditionalist,’ which is clearly a riff on ‘compassionate conservative,’ and that’s when Sittenfeld kind of lost me. It felt almost like a writing exercise that went on too long. If you want to write a biography of Laura Bush, write a biography. But if you want to fictionalize the life of a public figure, make it more fictional. American Wife is like one of those Law and Order episodes that is ‘ripped from the headlines.’ Difference is, I think that Law and Order doesn’t make itself stick to the script as faithfully as Sittenfeld has. This frustrated me at times because I didn’t feel sufficiently ‘surprised’ by the plot – okay, yep, he started a war on his own without the support of the people, been there done that, whatcha gonna do about it, Alice? On the other hand, I can see why Sittenfeld did it this way – you aren’t supposed to be surprised by the political figures and the unpopular war. This novel isn’t about those exterior events – it’s about the First Lady’s journey, and having the story told from her perspective is certainly a fascinating choice.
However, it doesn’t take the reader long to figure out that American Wife is not an exploration of political life. Its focus is far more domestic, more private that that. There is a tragedy that occurs early in Alice Blackwell’s life, and the ways in which it influences her decisions carry on well into her adulthood. How do the decisions we do (or don’t) make impact our future? What about the secrets that we keep? Alice seems to punish herself for choices she made as a young woman, and it is not until the final page that she begins to answer the question, “Have I made terrible mistakes?” I read her question with an emphasis on the word ‘have.’ Alice seems to be most afraid that the choices she has made in her life have influenced her husband to make the choices that he has – good and bad. So, to that end, does that make her responsible for or complicit in her husband’s political actions?
I’m not sure Alice buys that idea. Toward the end of the book, she very publicly betrays her husband (a glaring difference between Alice Blackwell and Laura Bush). In the aftermath, she thinks to herself, “I could have lived a different life, but I lived this one. And perhaps it is not a coincidence that I married a man who would neither fault me nor even be aware of my failings. I married a man to whom I would compare favorably because if I have done little, he has done less, or perhaps more; if I have caused harm accidentally and indirectly, he has done so with qualmless intent and total confidence.” It is unclear what Alice is trying to do here. Is her defiance of her husband a deliberate choice to act on her conscience, or is she using it to absolve herself of the guilt that she clearly feels? I also think that American Wife is the story of a marriage, and how one woman makes compromises and sacrifices in order to be with the man she loves. As I got further and further into the story, I wondered how much more could Alice take? How much more was she willing to take? Is the grand gesture she makes against her husband really about politics, or something more intimate than that?
I do think that American Wife is very thoughtfully written – truly lovely in some parts – and bears the same strengths of consistent, genuine narrative voice that Prep has. But you do spend a great deal of time inside Alice Blackwell’s head, and if the questions she struggles with aren’t compelling to you, then you this isn’t the book for you. It is, after all, 555 pages. It will also help if you are one of those readers who can forgive an author for a disappointing Part Three as long as Parts One and Two are good.
I was wrong in thinking that American Wife is a ‘big, American story’ like America, America. In the days since I finished American Wife, I keep thinking of the phrase, “You can never really know what happens between two people.” Do I think this is an accurate depiction of the Bush’s home life? Very likely not. And again, this story is not about him, or even them. It’s about her. So I’m taking my time in deciding whether or not I truly enjoyed this book – do I buy it? Could Alice really stay in that marriage? Would I? Does the story of her life – and really, that’s what this book is – add up to all that? I just don’t know.
I’ll say this – Curtis Sittenfeld took a huge risk with this subject. Good on her for that.