'American Wife' is kind of the best book ever
September 9, 2008 at 6:36 pm
Welcome to the first installment of our book club, in which we indulge the fantasy that people on this campus actually have time for pleasure reading! New book club selections will be posted sporadically, or maybe never again--it depends on whether we finish any other books this semester.
Curtis Sittenfeld, who you probably know as the author of Prep, or her less-popular-but-still-good second novel, The Man of My Dreams, came out with a new book last week. Perfectly timed for election-obsessed readers, Sittenfeld presents the story of Alice, a quiet and kind librarian who finds herself married to Charlie Blackwell, a rich, rowdy Republican and the future president of the United States. This should probably sound familiar: the book is indeed inspired by the lives and marriage of Laura and George W. Bush. The Blackwells come from Wisconsin, not Texas, and Charlie Blackwell calls himself a "tolerant traditionalist" rather than a "compassionate conservative," but all the notable bits of Laura and George's backgrounds remain: the tragic car accident in Laura's past, George's struggles with alcoholism and eventual conversion to devout Christian/baseball team-owner, the administration's push for an unpopular war.
This may sound a little gimmick-y, but Sittenfeld is not a gimmick-y writer. Yes, her main character is inspired by Laura Bush, but Alice's saga by itself is heartbreaking and exquisitely rendered. Her brushes with tragedy, her loves lost, her decision to stay single into her '30s, and even her decision to eventually marry Charlie all make her a captivating character. And have I mentioned what an amazing writer Sittenfeld is? Here is one of my favorite passages, from a scene with Alice and her high school crush:
That moment—inside it, I could anticipate the thing I most wanted and I could be beyond it, it had happened already, and I was ensconsed in the rich reassurance of knowing it was certain and definite.But on to the dishy stuff: If you are the sort of person who loses yourself for hours reading about the various scandals of the Kennedys or the Bushes or any important family on Wikipedia, you'll be fascinated by Alice's transformation from small-town librarian to First Lady. Alice is easy to like in spite of the hatred her husband inspires, and in fact, watching Alice fall in love with Charlie is completely compelling. It' may seem twisted to think that the real Laura Bush could still love her husband despite huge disagreements over politics, but by the end of American Wife, it makes an odd sort of sense.
Or maybe this is only what I think now. But it was all we ever had! Approaching each other, him from the gym, me from the library—this was when I walked down the aisle and he was waiting, this was when we made love, it was every anniversary, every reunion in an airport or train station, every reconciliation after a quarrel. This was the whole of our lives together.
By now, it is probably obvious that I am Curtis Sittenfeld's biggest fan, so another pleasure of reading American Wife was that I really felt like I was bearing witness to Sittenfeld growing and experimenting as a writer. I'm not sure if I would rank American Wife above Prep, especially because, as many reviewers noted, the fourth section isn't as good as the first three, but it was definitely a complete joy to watch Sittenfeld step outside her first two novels and create something more ambitious and controversial. It was also fun to catch tiny Sittenfeld-isms throughout the book: most obviously, her girlcrush on Laura Bush, but also her love for Dirty Dancing and the fact that her father went to Princeton, all of which she's written about in various places at some point. The point is, Curtis Sittenfeld is a genius, and I look forward to reading her novels for years to come. Lucky for you, Van Pelt has a copy. Call number PS3619.I94 A8, check it out!