American Wife

I didn’t expect to love Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife as much as I did. I liked her first book Prep quite a lot, so I know she’s an author whose sensibility speaks to me, but I thought this book was even better than the previous one. Now, I listened to this on audio, and I tend to like books I listen to more readily than those I read, so I’m not sure how reliable my response is, exactly, but still, I spent several weeks looking forward to the time when I could get in the car to listen to a little bit more of the story.

As I wrote about here, reading this book was an odd experience because I never expected to enjoy being in the company of characters who are modeled on George and Laura Bush. But, while the George character was often irritating (though not as much as I would have expected, given how I feel about the real-life person), Alice, the one modeled on Laura, was a fascinating person whom I came to admire.

Alice is a first-person narrator, and she tells her life story up until about 1 1/2 years from the end of Charlie’s (George’s) second term as president. I was talking to a friend recently about how knowing the trajectory a novel will follow — that we will move from Alice’s childhood up through the time she becomes first lady — can get dull, but in this case it wasn’t. As soon as she met Charlie, I knew who he was and that she would marry him, and, of course, I knew that he would be politically successful beyond her wildest dreams. But the story of their journey to the White House was enthralling the entire way, all because of Alice’s thoughtful, careful, measured, and balanced voice. That description doesn’t sound enthralling, I know, but when extraordinary things happen to someone who thinks and talks kind of like I do and whom I feel I could be friends with, I’m drawn in.

The first extraordinary thing that happens to Alice is something tragic: at 17, while driving to a party, she ran a stop sign and hit a car driven by a high school classmate, Andrew Imhof, with whom she was just beginning to realize she couldpossibly fall in love. This tragedy follows her for the rest of her life, not just because she was responsible for someone else’s death, but because she could never know whether their relationship would have blossomed into romance, had he lived. What, she thinks later, if she and Andrew had married and she had become a farmer’s wife? She may never have met Charlie in that case, much less married him and become the first lady.

But marrying Andrew is not what happened, and instead when Alice meets Charlie, the two fall for each other hard. They are engaged in six weeks and married in a few months. In so many ways, Charlie is perfect for Alice — he is funny and gregarious and light-hearted, to balance out her seriousness and thoughtfulness. He is confident and carefree, to balance her worried and insecure nature. She makes him a little more serious, while he helps her loosen up. Their differing traits attract them to each other, but, not surprisingly, they become a source of conflict over time, and eventually Alice comes to question the choice she made.

Or was it even a choice? There is a sense in which Alice was pulled into that relationship by forces beyond her knowledge, or perhaps it was her unconscious that led her there. At any rate, she thinks deeply about why she did what she did, and why people do what they do, and the extent to which any of us have any real say in the course of our lives.

These questions become even more urgent when she finds herself as First Lady and wife of a husband who has taken the country to war, in highly questionable circumstances. How in the world did she end up there? And what is she supposed to do now? What are her responsibilities, given that she’s not entirely sure that the war is right — or that it is wrong? And what exactly does she owe her husband’s administration? Should she hide her true feelings if they conflict with administration talking points?

American Wife covers a lot of ground, moving from small-town middle-class Wisconsin to the upper-class Wisconsin sanctuaries where Charlie’s family resides (Sittenfeld changed some key details — I don’t know how many, in fact, and it would be interesting to know), to the campaign trail, to the Governor’s mansion, to the White House. The wonder of it, to Alice, is that she is the same person through it all. How does an average middle-class midwestern woman who never in her wildest dreams would have thought she could become as powerful and famous as she became end up where she did? This question never ceases to puzzle Alice, and I loved the book’s implication that this is only an extreme version of the question that plagues us all. How in the world did any of us end up in the places we did?


Filed under Books, Fiction

16 responses to “American Wife

  1. I think it’s a question we all (or many) tend to ask ourselves; and the answer is the story of our life as we understand it and narrate it. I think it’s impressive that the author can make this character sympathetic to people whose politics are so opposite.


  2. I always admired Laura. She has a strong presence. It appears from your review that the book picked up on that aspect of her personality.


  3. This sounds so interesting–the only thing putting me off reading it is the idea that it was modeled on George and Laura Bush, but I should really try and look past that as it ended up not really mattering so much to you. It’s interesting, too, that you tend to like books you listen to more readily than those you read–do you think you just get caught up in the story and aren’t really thinking of the structure so much maybe?


  4. It sounds fascinating. I would never have read it, like Danielle, because of the subject matter but you make me think I could. Onto the wish list, then.

    Meanwhile, you and I just passed our fourth blog birthdays and neither of us even mentioned it. I really admire the way you’ve kept up the pace and consistency of your blogging, whereas I’ve been a lot more ragged.

    Anyway, belated blog birthday happy returns to you, dear Dorothy!


  5. I never would have wanted to read this because of the Bush connection. When it was released, I remember thinking it felt a little cheap somehow to write a speculative book about the Bushes–sort of like a way to ensure buzz and a place on the best-seller list. But now both you and Litlove have recommended it, and I’m reconsidering. Maybe after the Bush years are in the more distant past.


  6. Lovely review, Dorothy! I’m so glad you loved this – and for exactly the reasons I loved it, too. I thought the questions it posed were so rich and interesting.


  7. verbivore

    I didn’t realize this book was patterned on George and Laura Bush…I’m not sure whether I could read it objectively, but it would be worth a try. I do like the questions you’ve teased out of the novel…that type of reflection in literature is something I really enjoy. I’ll put this on the “maybe” pile.


  8. Between you and Litlove liking this book I’m going to have to read it now becasue I’ve always wondered how such a sensible seeming person like Laura ended up a man like Bush. The book may not answer that but at least it sounds like it is very thoughtful, which I like.


  9. Wow, this is a book I would NEVER have considered reading before your review, Dorothy, and now…I probably still won’t get around to it, but if it crossed my path I would strongly consider picking it up. It sounds like Sittenfeld’s treatment really transcends the source material to ask some thought-provoking questions. Thanks for opening my mind a bit! 🙂


  10. I’ve only heard wonderful things about this book but I’ve never gotten around to reading it. Your recommendation and Litlove’s are good enough for me to get a copy of it. (p.s. I actually liked Bush and admire Laura, so it wouldn’t bother me that their lives are its inspiration.)


  11. You’ve made it sound much more rich than any of the big newspapers have managed 🙂 I think they got all caught up in the Bush comparison while you seems to ahve managed to look at the characters as representations of the Bush family and characters in their own right.


  12. As a fellow book lover, I’ve always admired Laura, a school librarian. During her husband’s presidency, she tried to promote reading and education as best she could, but I sense that the prejudice against her because of her husband became too much after a while, and perhaps she retreated. In her position, I’m sure I would have.


  13. Lilian — I was impressed too. She managed to pull some themes that felt universal (or at least very common) out of a very particular, very unusual story.

    Alli — yes, the Alice character expressed a lot of self doubt, but she really did seem to have a strong sense of self anyway, and she fought to stay true to herself in circumstances that made that very difficult.

    Danielle — I think audio books go by faster, so I have less time to process the story as it goes by, less time to think of complaints or sources of dissatisfaction. Plus, if I like the reader, I associate the likable reader with the book, and therefore I’m more likely to enjoy it. I’d say this story is even more fascinating because it’s about the Bushes — and it’s good even without that aspect.

    Charlotte — happy belated blog birthday to you! Thank you so much for remembering it. I’m admiring and looking forward to the new things you are doing with your blog. It does feel like the time is right to take it in a new direction, right? I’m trying to be more relaxed about my posting schedule, to avoid burn-out. Here’s to another great year for both of us!

    Teresa — my feeling is that the book is less about taking advantage of buzz and more about an intellectual puzzle Sittenfeld set herself — to understand how someone like Alice could be with someone like Charlie, and what that marriage would be like. But yes, I can see the advantage of reading further into the future.

    Litlove — thank you! You are a big part of the reason I picked the book up in the first place.

    Verbivore — I didn’t even try to read it objectively — I kept yelling at the George character — but the book won me over as I went along. She’s good at getting you to challenge your assumptions, which is always an interesting thing.


  14. Stefanie — it’s definitely thoughtful, and it just might answer your question! Or at least, it might give a plausible answer. There’s no knowing for sure, of course.

    Emily — oh, I’m very happy to influence anybody’s way of thinking, even a little bit, so I’m pleased to make you even consider picking this book up 🙂 I’m glad I took a chance on this one — sometimes those chances are well worth taking!

    Grad — I hope you enjoy the book! It will probably be a very different experience starting off predisposed to like the characters — I hope that means you enjoy the book even more!

    Jodie — I can see why people would get caught up in the Bush comparison, but that’s definitely not the only reason to read the book. I hope I’ve done the book justice!

    Debby — the parts of the book that dealt with her response to the pressures of the presidency were really interesting. Sittenfeld describes it so well I began to wonder where she got her information about what it’s like to be famous. The parts about Alice’s reading life were really interesting — Sittenfeld frequently mentions the books she read, which was fun.


  15. I’ve just borrowed this book for the summer holidays and very much enjoyed your reviews!


  16. Pingback: Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife (2008) | Smithereens

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