Review #35: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I never thought I’d like a book based on Laura Bush’s life. I didn’t really know there was enough to say about her life to fill a whole book, to be honest. So kudos to Curtis Sittenfeld for making this book as poignant and compelling as it is.

American Wife is a thinly-veiled account of the life of Laura Bush (as in, George W.’s wife). The differences between Bush and Alice Lindgren, the protagonist, are few–the name, obviously, and the fact that the story takes place in Wisconsin instead of Texas. Alice’s voice is also clearly imagined; Sittenfeld takes liberties with her subject matter and creates a character independent of her real-life inspiration.

We meet Alice as the 61-year-old first lady of the United States. The rest of the book is a reflection on her early life, and on the strange path that led her to a position she never thought she’d hold. She was a fairly typical midwestern girl: a child growing up in small-town Wisconsin; a teenager forever tainted by an unexpected tragedy; an elementary school librarian. And then she meets the handsome, charming Charlie Blackwell, and everything changes.

I really liked Alice as a narrator. I don’t know how close Alice is to the real-life Laura, but if Laura is half as cool as Alice, I think I’ve severely misjudged her. Alice is sure of her beliefs; she’s liberal and independent and quietly bookish and makes no apologies for who she is. It is true that Laura was a registered Democrat as a young woman; Sittenfeld expands on this and has Alice consistently maintaining her Democratic allegiance, even as her Republican husband runs for office. I thought this was a really good choice; it added an interesting dimension to the story and made me respect Alice all the more.

My one criticism of the book is that the last quarter feels extremely rushed. The first three-quarters are paced very well, and are pretty detailed and fleshed out. There are time jumps (Sittenfeld frames the narrative by dividing into sections based on the houses Alice has lived in, which I thought was clever), but they’re all pretty short. But then all of a sudden there’s a huge time jump and Charlie is halfway into his second presidential term, and I became significantly less invested in the story. I realize that not everything can be included, but it was kind of frustrating and jarring. It’s literally a twenty year leap! I liked seeing Alice struggle with her role in the public eye, but I felt like we were missing out on some crucial plot development (for example, how and why Charlie decided to immerse himself in politics again, and discussions between Alice and Charlie about that choice). I was just so swept up in the first three-quarters of the book–so invested in Alice as a narrator–and the end fell a little flat for me. If Sittenfeld had developed it better, or made the transition a little smoother, I would have been much happier.

Overall, though, this book is wonderful, and really made me care about a woman I’d given little thought to up until this point. Highly recommended!

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