This is a curious book. Joyce Carol Oates called Curtis Sittenfeld’s third book, American Wife: A Novel, her most ambitious project. I might agree with her there. But I’m not sure I agree that the ambitionof this novel quite followed through.
American Wife is about Alice, a small town girl who lives a dull, normal life. As a teenager, she kills a classmate in a car accident. She eventually because a librarian. At 31, she meets Charlie Blackwell, a loveable but somewhat dim man who has inherited fortune as part of a well known political family name. They marry. They falter. He buys a baseball team. He drinks. He stops drinking. And he eventually becomes President of the United States.
Sound familiar? That’s because Alice’s story mimics that of former first lady Laura Bush. Sure, Charlie works in meat packing and lives in Wisconsin. But there is no way to not see the similarities, right on down to Laura causing the death of a classmate in a car accident.
Sittenfeld has openly proclaimed her love of Laura Bush, and Alice’s issues – toward the end of the novel in the “Presidency phase” – seem to be Sittenfeld’s way of defending the former first lady. And this is where the book started to wobble.
I was engrossed in American Wife up to the point that Charlie becomes President. I forgot the Laura Bush ties and became fascinated in the story of this woman she created albeit rooted in fact because she was a woman faced with choices. She killed a boy, but she continued to move on with her life (though weighed down by regret). She gets pregnant, but has an abortion. She goes to college. She becomes a librarian. She passes on marriage proposals and breaks up with a very dull man. She stays single into her 30s, but agrees to marry Charlie six weeks after meeting him. Those passages where she first meet’s Charlie’s family harken heavily back to Sittenfeld’s debut novel, Prep: the fish out of water in the rich world theme. I didn’t mind the repeat. It was from a different point of view than the younger narrator of Prep, and even though my boyfriend does not come from a wealthy family, I could identify with Alice’s apprehension of being tossed into someone else’s substantial family history.
But when the Presidency comes in, it’s too close to reality for comfort. Charlie does almost exactly what President Bush (the second) did. The reaction to 9/11. The road into war. There are even copies of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. Alice’s bleating defense for herself and for not stopping Charlie sound less like Alice and more like a Laura Bush fan trying to explain why this woman did what she did – marry a buffoon who tripped into the Presidency who, if she hadn’t been married to him, you think she wouldn’t have voted for. And my dislike doesn’t come from my dislike of GWB. It’s just not believable in a work of fiction that Alice would have done what she did.
I don’t regret reading the book, but I wish the last section had gone in a different direction. I almost didn’t buy it. I loved Prep, but didn’t like Sittenfeld’s second book, The Man of My Dreams, which was the first major newspaper review of my career. My then editor sent it to me. I was horrified that I thought it was so terrible. Only after meeting a New York Times critic at Book Expo America and realizing that she disliked it as much as did I feel relieved that I wasn’t a moron for not enjoying the following up book to a debut that had been so widely heralded.
But American Wife had gotten so many good reviews. Ambitious? Yes. But a complete winner? No.
The weird thing about this is that I WANTED to love love love this book. I don’t necessarily feel guilty about panning The Man of My Dreams because it deserved to be panned, and the job of a review is to inform the audience, not flatter the author. But I knew then and know now that Sittenfeld is a talent, and one who needs to get her work out there to combat all that stupid chick lit and Jennifer Weiner crap that is being heralded as women’s fiction. Sittenfeld’s writing is strong and her topics important, but I still feel like she’s unpolished. American Wife is a much better book then Man of My Dreams. Hopefully ambition will not get in the way of further good fiction from a talented yet albeit still unproven author.
Writing a fictionalized Laura Bush biography is an interesting choice. I've always found both Bushs sympathetic characters. She seems like someone I might have been friends with. He seems like a decent enough but not too bright guy who stumbled into a job he was massively underqualified for and became a tool for Big Oil/Wall Street/The Defense Industry etc. I think I need to read a good actual biography of those two.