Welcome to the first Friday Finds: where I share mostly book recommendations (or recommendations of other cool things I’ve come across). For this week I wanted to chat about American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. This book came out in 2008 and it’s a novel inspired by the life of the former first lady Laura Bush. A friend of mine handed me the book when I visited York recently and while I was initially a bit unsure – I have no particular interest in Laura Bush and I don’t read a lot of political biographies or autobiographies – once I started it, I was totally swept away. It reminded me more of a sweeping 19th century novel – something like Anna Karenina maybe – that encompasses a coming-of-age story, explorations and reflections on love and marriage, a good bit of melodrama and tragedy, a smattering of politics, and a whole lot else in between.
The best and the worst thing I can say about this book is that it’s not really very much about politics. And I mean politics in several senses of the word: it’s not about political ‘issues’ (although those do come up, Sittenfeld’s not-quite-biography suggests that the main character, Alice Blackwell, and by extension her real world counterpart, Laura Bush, is far more liberal than her husband). It’s also not about the business of politics: campaigning, deals, alliances, betrayls. All of that juicy stuff that I was sort of expecting from a novel about a politician and his wife. Maybe I just watched too much House of Cards a few years back, but I was primed for political machinations and there is very little of that here. So if you want a book about any of those things, this might not be for you.
I would call this more of a character study of Alice: a quiet, unassuming woman – a librarian from rural Wisconsin – who is haunted by a personal tragedy from her youth (I don’t want to ‘spoil’ anything for those who aren’t familiar with Laura Bush’s life – but Alice’s tragedy parallels Bush’s). In her 30’s, Alice finds herself enchanted by the sweet, fun-loving but hugely flawed son of a privileged family, the Blackwells, which sets in motion a series of events that will lead Alice and her new husband to the White House.
The Alice who narrates the book is past middle age, reflecting back on her life, and the story is full of her excellent observations on behavior and human nature. When Alice waits for her husband to return home during a tornado storm, she reflects: ‘People to whom a terrible thing has never happened trust fate, the notion that what’s meant to be will be: the rest of us know better.’
When her husband gives up drinking and becomes a devout Christian, Alice (herself an atheist) is at first skeptical but later considers:
‘It provided (my husband) with a way to structure his behavior, a way to explain that behavior, both past and present, to himself. Perhaps fiction has, for me, served a similar purpose – what is a narrative arc if not the imposition of order on disparate events? – and perhaps it is my avid reading that has been my faith all along.’
As you can probably tell from the quote above, Sittenfeld is a quietly excellent writer. It’s not ‘showy’ writing, full of elaborate metaphors or florid descriptions, but the sentences are VERY well constructed and satisfying. It reads really smoothly, like it’s all so casual and effortless, an older woman speaking directly to you (the reader), but you can feel the craft behind them and her knowledge of rhythm and pace. I read that Sittenfeld went to the University of Iowa, whose creative writing program is known in the US as one of the best in the country, and I wasn’t at all surprised by that. This writing is almost like a politician who has studied very hard to appear folksy but behind that folksy charm is a lot of careful thought and planning. It works really well.
Aside from the lack of political behind-the-scenes stuff that I felt was missing from the book, another minor complaint I have is that it did feel strange to have this alternate history – where ‘Charlie Blackwell’ is president instead of ‘George Bush’ – yet all of the political events that happened during the Bush Presidency are there. 9/11 for example, or the invasion of Iraq (which, curiously, is never named? Sittenfeld keeps saying ‘that country’ her husband invaded, which I suppose could be Iraq or Afghanistan but why no specifics?). To me this felt strange: I like alternate histories (what if America lost the Revolutionary War? etc), but this is not so much an alternate history as an slightly alternate reality in which all of the events are the same but the key figures are slightly different? I understand why Sittenfeld chose not to actually have her characters BE the Bushes: this gives her lots of scope to invent, embellish and change without any worry. But that choice does render it quite surreal and opens up cans of worms that you must just put aside in order to enjoy the book: e.g. so do the Bushes not exist in this world?
Overall though I’d really recommend this book: not least because we just passed the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and this is a sensitive depiction of that immediately post-9/11 time period in the USA. It touches on a lot of topics – class, race, gay rights, abortion – but, like its heroine, it has a light touch, a big heart, and it doesn’t feel like it has an agenda (at least not an overt one). It’s more about how one particular woman, thrust into power she doesn’t want, navigates her role in her marriage and in society at large. It asks: what do we do with great responsibility, even if we didn’t ask for it? And I really believed in Alice as a woman and liked spending time with ‘her’. I was a bit sad when it ended (and that rarely happens with books for me!). If this sounds like your kind of book, then I’d highly recommend giving it a try.
Thanks as always for reading and hope you have a great weekend!
PS Today’s featured image is a cool shot of the White House in Washington D.C, as viewed from the Washington Monument. The photo is from 2006 and I accessed it on the Wikimedia Commons.