Monday, January 19, 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I thought it was appropriate to write this review tonight, the eve of the Inauguration.

Before the story begins, author Curtis Sittenfeld writes a disclaimer. She writes that American Wife is a novel that is "loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady. Her husband, his parents, and certain prominent members of his administration are recognizable. All other characters in the novel are products of the author's imagination, as are the incidents concerning them."

Yes, the story is loosely based, but a more apt description would be "thinly disguised."

American Wife tells the story of First Lady Alice Blackwell, who is married to Charlie Blackwell, a Republican president who is enduring a very controversial second term in office, what with two wars occurring on the opposite sides of the world.

Sound familiar? It should. It's an account of the life of Laura Bush, told from the perspective of the First Lady herself.

Sittenfeld makes little to no attempt to disguise the inspirations for her characters. Consider these points:
  • Both Alice Blackwell and Laura Bush grew up as shy only children who loved books.
  • Both women worked as elementary school librarians before marrying their husbands.
  • Both Charlie Blackwell and George W. Bush had unsuccessful runs for Congress before becoming governors of their respective home states (GWB as Texas governor, Blackwell as governor of Wisconsin.)
  • Both men once owned baseball teams (GWB the Texas Rangers, Blackwell the Milwaukee Brewers).

The list goes on and on, and those are just a few samples.

It is very clear, from the beginning of this novel, what the author's feelings are towards the Bush family, and they are not pretty. Sittenfeld paints a picture of Charlie Blackwell as an insecure man trying to live up to the accomplishments of his brothers, one of whom is a popular Wisconsin Congressman, as well as his father, Harold, who once served as governor of Wisconsin himself. Charlie Blackwell is a man who is constantly obsessed with his legacy, and what he can do to top his brothers' and father's accomplishments. Alice, who is a dutiful wife, going everywhere her husband does and sitting by his side at gala dinners, doesn't quite understand Charlie's obsession with legacy. She is a very shy, almost prudish woman, who is more into her books and classic literature than being in the spotlight. There are many times throughout the novel where she references past memories by the books either she or her daughter were reading at the time.

Alice admits several times that she is a liberal, in contrast to her husband's conservative political stance, but she doesn't really express her opinions on many issues until the last part of the novel. American Wife is divided into four sections. The first three do an excellent job focusing on character development and the psyche of each of the characters, but the last one falls flat. It's as if Sittenfeld rushed to finish this last part, and you don't get the same amount of detail that you did in the first three parts. You get to read some of Alice's opinions about political beliefs, but they're not as hashed out as they could have been.

This novel ends in June 2007. I would have loved it if this were published about six months down the road. I would have loved to have seen Sittenfeld's take on the financial crisis, the bailouts, and the election, as well as Alice's feelings on preparing to leave public life.

In spite of its flaws, American Wife is a very well-written novel. Sittenfeld is an excellent writer. Along the way, she drops details that you initially think are insignificant to the story, but they pop up later as a strong plot point, to make the reader go, "Whoa!" Everything connects in this story. The subplot, which involves Alice's involvement in a fatal car accident when she was seventeen, figures in significantly, and Sittenfeld does a masterful job weaving it through the main plotline, and how it figures into Alice's life.

This is my first review for my 2009 100+ Book Challenge. To keep up with my reviews, just click on the button in the right sidebar. I'll be back soon...I've got another review to post for y'all!

1 comment:

J. Kaye said...

The link that you posted on Mr. Linky for the 100+ Reading Challenge has been updated. Thanks! :)