Monday, February 14, 2011

America Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
576 pages
Published by Random House September 2008
Source: I own it

Alice Blackwell, First Lady of the United States of America, who may have just caused her husband one of his worst days as President, ponders the mistakes she has made and the path that has brought her to this point.

An only child, Alice grew up in a quiet household in Wisconsin.  Bookish and shy, Alice's grandmother was the only spice in her life.  And Andrew Imhof was the love of her life.  But when Alice was a senior, life became dramatically different for Alice.  Not that Alice was any less shy, nor was she any less bookish.  In fact, she went on to earn a Master's degree and became a school librarian and rarely dated or had boyfriends.  But when Alice, just over thirty, met Charlie Blackwell, her life really did change. Within a few weeks Alice found herself engaged to Charlie and soon became a part of his large, very boisterous, very rich and very political family. 

Life with Charlie is not easy.  His position in the family business seems to be largely in name only, he drinks too much and he not infrequently embarrasses Alice.  But she loves him so she stays quiet and copes as best she can.  When he begins a career in politics, it is the last thing that Alice wants to be a part of, but again she stays quiet and copes as best she can. And that's how she finds herself First Lady, still trying to cope as best she can.

Curtis Sittenfeld was quick to say, when this book first came out, that Alice Blackwell, the protagonist of American Wife, is not Laura Bush.  But so many key events in the book were also key events in Mrs. Bush's life, it was all but impossible for me not to spend the entire book wondering which parts were based on reality. Which really distracted me from the story.  There is a tragic accident that really happened, George Bush really did come from a large, boisterous family and he really did drink too much, didn't work much and was part owner of a baseball team before going into politics.

The story is told first person, by Alice, and she spends a lot of time trying to figure out her relationship with Charlie.  Why is she drawn to him when he is so far from the person she imagined she would spend her life with?  Why does he want to be married to her?
"I was marrying him because I enjoyed his company.  And I was, from his point of view, a serious person--he saw me the way I had seen Simon--and it was my seriousness that fundamentally affirmed Charlie, explaining away his playfulness as a superficial distraction, alluding to hidden reservoirs of wisdom and stability.  If Charlie Blackwell was really a spoiled lightweight, Alice Lindgren would not have been marrying him; we both needed to believe it.  But again, as I said: This is the conclusion I pretended not to have drawn."
"I was now married (married) to an aspiring politician from a smug and ribald family, I had a mother-in-law who didn't like me, my husband was a man who basically (I rarely, even in the privacy of my own head, admitted this) did not hold a job.  I'd been meant to grow old in Riley; I'd never been meant for ribaldry or riches."
And yet she stays with him.  And puts up with him.  And I just wanted to slap her.  Also, I began to feel, by about page 300 that all of Alice's thinking was just so...self-indulgent.  It was clear to me that Sittenfeld holds Mrs. Bush, thus Alice, in high esteem.  But I couldn't and it made getting through the book work, not pleasure.

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