Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book 16: American Wife

How does a small town librarian from Wisconsin end up married to the President of the United States? In American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld explores this journey of an ordinary couple to the most well known people in the United States. In creating Alice and Charles Blackwell, Sittenfeld borrows heavily from what we know about Laura and George Bush. Alice is a Librarian, Charles comes from a large, connected, well-to-do family. Charles is insecure, drinks too much, and is part owner of a baseball franchise before his political career really takes off. Where the story differs, though, is where things get interesting.
When I say "where the story differs" I'll be honest. I've not read biographies of Laura and George Bush, so I am assuming that there are key events in the book that are complete fiction. If not, well, I missed some huge stories in the news cycle during the Bush Administration, and please forgive my oversight.
Again, it isn't what actually happens in the story that is capturing my attention and interest. It is what I began thinking about as I read these sections. Sittenfeld's Alice is so well drawn that even though there are striking similarities to Laura Bush, it isn't Laura Bush that I saw in my mind as I was reading. Alice is, so to speak, her own person. Alice is likeable, and I found myself empathizing with her the first time she meets Charles' family. Like Alice, I grew up a middle class only child. And while I'm a fairly confident person, I would be intimidated meeting such a large, close-knit family like the Blackwells, for the first time. I like being able to identify with a character that way.
As the story progresses, and Alice Blackwell is looking back at both her husband's presidency and their life together I was struck by how much sacrifice at least some of our First Ladies have made with their lives. Charles is from a staunchly Republican family. Alice is a Democrat. She doesn't change her affiliation for her husband's political endeavors, but she follows her convictions behind the scenes. Charles has a religious epiphany and becomes a born-again Christian. Alice is largely agnostic. However, because of her marriage, people assume that what is true about Charles is true about Alice.
I felt much empathy for Alice when it became apparent that there were fundamental differences between Alice's feelings on certain policy positions and that of the Administration. Alice understandably feels stifled. That is what made me really think about our First Ladies. Many of our First Ladies are ambitious in their own right, and may be perfectly comfortable in their role in the White House. But I imagine (with no evidence to support this, just my own musings, were I in that position) that a great many of them must feel like they have to bury so much of themselves in that role. After all, we've not technically elected the First Lady. We've elected the President. Some Presidents may confer with their spouse, but how much of those conversations become policy? We'll never really know. But everyone must always be on message. What if you don't believe in what that message is? How do you support your spouse and stay true to yourself? How much do you go along with if you don't want your spouse to really even follow a particular path? Alice never really wanted Charles to run for any office. But she loves her husband, and it is important to him. I really felt for some of the struggles Alice faces as First Lady. Being damned for whatever she does. I really value my privacy (inasmuch as what I don't disclose in Social Media being more important to me than what I do), and I can't imagine having everything I do scrutinized the way a First Lady does.
At any rate, American Wife is a fast read, with an entertaining story. I'd call it a good beach read, if you are planning for summer vacation. I enjoyed this read more that Sittenfeld's Prep.
Next up? I think I want some non-fiction. I'll be looking through the unread books at the house to come up with something.... Happy Reading.

1 comment:

  1. I read this one a few months ago. Your review was dead on. I felt the same way about much of the book and the issues that Alice brings to the table. I couldn't have ever put it into words so well. Thank you.