Book Review

'Wife' draws on Laura Bush's life in novel ways

By Heller McAlpin
August 30, 2008
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American Wife
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 576 pp., $26

Well, we still have free speech. The very existence of Curtis Sittenfeld's audacious third novel, "American Wife," a well-researched, juicy roman à clef about the current first lady, Laura Bush, makes that crystal clear.

"American Wife" also demonstrates that the author of "Prep" and "The Man of My Dreams" has taken the necessary leap into the grown-up world of marriage and politics, although she lingers for a few chapters along the way in the insecure, self-sabotaging adolescent beat she pretty much exhausted in her first two novels.

The intensely private, reserved Laura Bush might seem a surprising choice for the subject of a 570-page confessional novel. But the sad story of Laura's accident at 17, when she ran a stop sign in Midland, Texas, and killed a high school romantic interest, is literary catnip to a writer who feasts on adolescent angst. Sittenfeld could also identify with Laura’s passion for literature. And who can resist wondering how the Bushes’ beauty-and-the-beast, lady-and-the-tramp marriage works? What does Laura really think of her husband?

As Maureen Dowd noted in a July 9 New York Times op-ed column defending "American Wife" against early attacks that it's all "smear" and "gossip," "There's only one vessel that can ferry you past Laura's moat, and that's fiction." The difficulty for the Bushes is that some readers may mistake Sittenfeld's fiction for biography.

Charlie Blackwell, her stand-in for George W. Bush, is an uninhibited, grinning, crude, but amiable goofball whose "ambitions exceed his talent." Alice Lindgren Blackwell, her stand-in for Laura, fares better. But Sittenfeld, who used graphic sex scenes in her first two novels to contrast healthy relationships with bad ones, gets into bed with her characters again. Beyond the inherent prurience of imagining the first lady's premarital sex life, it's a stretch to believe that this reserved character would include such details in a narrative, even to herself.

Alice's voice is modest and refined. Her story is divided into four neat sections, each headed by the address where she lived at the time. The first three are in her home state of Wisconsin; Sittenfeld, an Ohio native, chose a Midwestern state in place of Texas. The prologue and final section are set at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

An uneasy night in the White House causes Alice to review her life's trajectory. While her husband, President Blackwell, snores peacefully beside her, Alice is awake worrying whether she's done the right thing supporting him in policies with which she disagrees-- anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, the war in Iraq. Was she wrong to finally speak her own mind in public that day? Where does duty lie as an American wife?

The first quarter of the novel veers into what a character in Sittenfeld's previous novel labeled her usual "low-self-esteem shtick." After her accident, Alice martyrs herself to her dead boyfriend's brutish brother, ending up needing an abortion. Like many other elements in this well-crafted but often excessively detailed novel, this has reverberations decades later.

She's headed toward spinsterhood as a 31-year-old school librarian when she meets Charlie, the "rascally, naughty" youngest son of Wisconsin's governor. Despite the overwhelming Blackwell clan, which includes a sharp-tongued matriarch, Alice marries Charlie within months. They have one daughter, and she quits her job. Charlie works -- desultorily -- in the family meat business and sinks into alcoholism before being born again. He eventually runs for governor and then president, "in it for the power and adventure and human connection and not because of any wonkish devotion to or interest in the issues."

Sittenfeld spares us the campaigns and elections, but she doesn't stint on much else, including details about Princeton reunions and Alice's recurring guilt. She captures the rub of marital friction and convincingly charts a day in the life of a first lady. Although "American Wife" probes far-reaching issues about marriage and responsibility, it is the implied questions about whether our president is "incompetent and foolish" that are bound to raise hackles.

As a career move, "American Wife" is brilliant, with its timely, sensational back story. If it goes on at too great length for some of us, well, so does the administration it depicts, many critics would contend. But, as Sittenfeld's character says to one of her husband's detractors, "Aren't we both lucky to live in a country that allows the expression of this kind of criticism?"

Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for newspapers.

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