American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 2008, 555 pp
What Curtis Sittenfeld can do is create a character so completely that the novel becomes almost exclusively that character's world. Like Lee Fiora in Prep, Alice Lindgren Blackwell moves from the world of her family and small town into the privileged world of Charlie Blackwell. She is ever after an outsider though with a much stronger sense of self than Lee. That self is one of low-keyed, organized and well thought out actions. But it is the low-keyed approach, the subdued and repressed nature of this woman that permeates American Wife. When Charlie Blackwell enters the story with his dimwitted, devil-may-care and self-centered exuberant energy, it is like opening the windows of a stuffy airless room.
American Wife is supposed to be a fictionalized account of George and Laura Bush. But the Blackwells are from Wisconsin, their wealth comes from meatpacking; really they are completely midwestern. The American Midwest is so not Texas that I found the suspension of disbelief required impossible to sustain. Equally unbelievable for me was that Alice Lingren (the Laura Bush stand-in) could fall for and actually stay in love with Charlie Blackwell (George) for so many years. As this story goes, she found him entertaining and exciting compared to the quiet circumscribed world of her childhood, but she did not respect him and they had hardly anything in common. Somehow the sex was always good.
Because the novel is told in Alice's first person account, I wanted to like her but knowing that she married Charlie (George), I just could not. In the last section of the novel, when they are President and First Lady, which section just begins out of the blue, skipping to a decade or so after Alice has tried to leave Charlie and then gone back to him after he quit drinking and found Jesus, I wanted to feel sorry for her. She was so conflicted internally while having to put up a public front of support for her husband. She truly hated her life and the war and was counting the days until the end of the second term. Still she drones on in that well-measured, calm and reasonable tone about events that contain massive charges of emotion. If she was so capable and calm in the face of all that, what was she doing in that life? It just did not make sense to me, especially in the last half of the 20th century.
I admit though that Sittenfeld kept me reading, turning all those 555 pages. The feeling that I was reading an early 1960s edition of "Ladies Home Journal" was belied by my interest in what would happen next. In high school, my boyfriend and first great love of my life, was a kind, conservative young man who went on to study pharmacy and enlist during the Vietnam War. I went on to be a radical folksinger, hippie Mom and women's libber. I loved him completely through our last two years of high school, but even at that young and inexperienced age, I knew that I could not live my life with him. My upbringing was shockingly similar to what Sittenfeld portrays for Alice, who was intelligent, perceptive, well-read and had a rebellious streak. So what happened? To quote the Eagles, "Did she get tired or did she just get lazy?" Or lonely or bedazzled or just plain stuck? I can't stop thinking about it.
(This book is in stock in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)