Book Review: American Wife

[Sorry about the lack of blogging over the past bit. I don’t even have a good excuse for it, except that I didn’t do it. If it’s any consolation, up until today, I’d only written 3k words the entire month (I’m currently going on a hardcore writing binge – 10k days for as long as I can sustain it)]

Today’s offering: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld.

This is a novel based loosely on the life of Laura Bush. I don’t know a great deal about the former First Lady, so I can’t comment to the accuracy of the fictional portrayal. The most blatant difference, of course, is that the couple have been moved from Texas to Michigan.

The story opens well before Alice Lindgren/Laura Bush meets Charlie Blackwell/George Bush. Essentially, it’s a biography from Alice’s early childhood through to being the wife of the president in the middle of his second term, well after his approval ratings plummeted. Alice is a democrat, though that’s more because those are the philosophies she’s always been imbued with rather than any real political leanings (if anything, she holds few positions, later in life, on many important issues simply because she can see good arguments on either side of the issue).

The book is broken into four parts. The first is Alice’s childhood, up until a tragic accident for which she can never quite forgive herself, and which sets her onto her ultimate path. The second is after she has left her small hometown and has taken up a job as a schoolteacher, when she meets the ne’er-do-well Charlie, already an inveterate drunk. The whirlwind romance is like nothing she could ever have imagined, and they marry within a few months. The third part details their married life, and Charlie’s increasing alcoholism and drug use as their marriage wears on, until she leaves him to make him shape up. It works; they get back together. Abruptly, the fourth part skips many years to the time when they’re in the White House.

I appreciate the skipping over Charlie Blackwell’s campaign for governor, and then his campaign for president (though both are alluded to in the final section) – those sorts of political machinations really aren’t the focus of the novel. The focus is on Alice. The focus is always on Alice and her internal struggles to live with killing a classmate as a teenager, the abortion she had to keep secret (before Roe v. Wade), the contradiction of marrying into a hardcore Republican family, and the personal sacrifices which she has to make because, above all else, she loves the man that she has married. For all his flaws, she loves him. If I had to boil this book down to a single idea, it would be that: the internal struggle of Alice Lindgrem to come to terms as who she is as a person, and the sacrifices she must make in the name of those convictions.

The ending fizzles a bit to me, though it connects well to the prologue. (Look for a blog in the coming days/weeks about the importance of beginnings/endings).

But the writing style captivated me. First person writing can occasionally be annoyingly tedious.  In this case, it wasn’t; it was somewhere in the pleasant divide between good writing and good conversation. There aren’t a great many books that I pick up and spend hours at a stretch reading, and neglect other things (my own writing, for example), in order to finish the book.

A word of caution – there are some fairly graphic sexual scenes scattered throughout the book. I’m not quite sure how much they add to the narrative, but they are there.

Rating: 4/5

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