Wednesday, April 15, 2015

American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld

American Wife
Title: American Wife
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Publication Date: 9/2/08
Pages: 555
Genre: PoliticalFiction
How I Found It: I don't remember
Date Completed: 3/22/15

Summary: Sittenfeld freely admits this novel is loosely based around the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. While some elements of Alice Blackwell's life do mirror those of the graceful public figure, much of the book is speculative and fictional.

What I Thought: I found this book very interesting. I cannot clarify my feelings on the morality of turning a real person's life into fiction in this way - at least not while the person is still living. Of course, we all read novels such as Mademoiselle Chanel or Z and think little of it. Somehow, when the person remains living and remains at least somewhat in the public eye, it seems different. Perhaps because writing and reading about a contemporary feel quite separate from writing and reading about somehow who is now classified as an historical figure. 

In this novel, Sittenfeld takes a close, but fictional look at the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. Fictionalized, she becomes Alice Lindgren Blackwell, a girl from a humble Wisconsin family. Sittenfeld breaks the book into four segments: Alice as a teenager, Alice as a single librarian who meets political son Charlie Blackwell, Alice as a wife and mother with an alcoholic husband, and Alice as First Lady.

In some ways, each section is its own mini-novel. The story is told in first person, as though Alice is looking back on her life. I really enjoyed the first two sections, particularly. Sittenfeld weaves in some shocking details: a fatal car accident (true) and a teenage abortion (presumably false). There was also much more sexual content than I expected. Sittenfeld address that, and other topics, in an interesting interview with NPR; it's definitely worth listening to if you are interested in the book.

The downfall of the book really is the fourth and final section, which depicts a brief window of Alice's time as First Lady. I found this section stiff and lacking the same warmth and vulnerability of the earlier sections. The complexity and independence Alice showcases in the first three quarters of the book melt away into a political fix-it scenario. Sittenfeld lost me here.

Overall, the book is interesting and unique. While we readily accept the idea that politicians and even Hollywood types often have different personas than those they display in public, that mindset is more difficult to grasp or accept with a figure such as Laura Bush. Sittenfeld's Alice Blackwell is beautifully human, complex and conflicted, as we all are. 

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Will I Re-Read: Unlikely

A Reduced Review: An imagined First Lady, whose life bears unmistakable similarities to Laura Bush's, shares her journey from insecure teenager to demure, but firm political wife.

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