Sometimes the ladies in my library book club pass around books they’ve finished and don’t plan on reading again. Before I began my Great Book Purge (in anticipation of moving, of course), I was very willing to pick up any book at the great price of “free” and give it a shot. I would not have picked up American Wife if I’d had to pay for it. I read another Curtis Sittenfeld title before and I did not care for it. This one was not added to my list of favorites either.
American Wife is based loosely on the real life Laura Bush. This is unfortunate, in my opinion because Laura Bush is still alive. Not that I believe in slandering people after they are dead either, but it does seem awkward to make a novel based on someone (and add your own juicy details) who can possibly contact you and tell you, you are out of line. Now, some things in the book do actually match the facts of the life of the real Laura Bush, but I’m sort of surprised Ms. Sittenfeld has been allowed to get away with some of this stuff.
The story is of the life of Alice Blackwell nee Lindgren raised a democrat (true) in the state of Wisconsin (false). She was involved as a teenager in a hit and run accident with a classmate (true), who she was interested in since childhood (possibly?) and for the rest of her adult life she is plagued with wondering “what if” knowing forever that her “secret heart” will always belong to this young man (gross speculation). She lived with her parents and grandmother who was a closeted lesbian (uhhh…) and was a librarian with a deep love of books (true). Sometime during her younger more vulnerable years she gets pregnant by the brother of the young man who was killed in the tragic accident (unable to verify and totally out of line) and gets pregnant and has an abortion (at this point I’d be a little angry if I was Ms. Bush). She met George Bu—er, Charlie Blackwell at a barbecue (true) and married him later on (true) agreeing to support him as a wife while disagreeing with his political views (true).
So, if I try to read this without picturing Laura Bush (this is virtually impossible), it’s an interesting story, but far far FAR too inappropriate for me to read. This is the exact problem I had with the last Sittenfeld novel I read, so I think this will be the last time I try. Ms. Sittenfeld is a good author who has good ideas. She spins a great yarn, you could say but I guess she’s of the school of writers who think you have to “spice up” your books to attract the reading public. *sigh*
If I read the book thinking of Laura Bush, an unexpected (and ironic) aspect comes up. I’vewritten before about gossip in politics and how one should be careful to mock someone like Sarah Palin for her gaffs and make sure they know the whole story. There is an element of forgiveness for Charlie Blackwell as a person. After almost losing his wife, and getting a DUI, Charlie gets in touch with a pastor and is “born again.” Now, honestly, I don’t know if even Ms. Sittenfeld is aware of what that means other than “Charlie stopped drinking.” But George Bush did claim to be a Christian and only God and George Bush know whether he is or not. So, to dwell too much on his past sin of over indulgence in alcohol is out of line, unless there is a repeat DUI and he is running for President. Everyone makes mistakes and some can be forgiven. It has always confused me that the same people who worry about George Bush’s DUI are completely unconcerned about our current president’s former marijuana use. I think both are mistakes committed and should be treated the same.
Also, a lot of the book talks about the war. This isn’t really a surprise, since George Bush will probably be remembered for his response to 9/11. In the persistent Great Man historiographical tradition, wars and presidents will forever be the milestones in most historical survey classes. So it would be impossible not to discuss George Bush without talking about the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. I respect the way Ms. Sittenfeld wrote about this. It would be easy to take cheap shots and in many ways some of them could be deserved (from what little I know), but she doesn’t. Like a good novelist she shows the full character of a human being who makes mistakes, sometimes with tragic consequences, but who isn’t the demon/antichrist/nazi character that the media often sets up. She uses her main character, Alice, to talk about how fickle the American people were in supporting the war originally and then denigrating Charlie for continuing it. Charlie Blackwell isn’t the hero of the story, but he isn’t the villain either. He is a conflicted and flawed man.
Something else Ms. Sittenfeld brings up through Alice’s thoughts (and here is the irony) is the effects of fame. How people will act around you. How even the people you grew up with will modify their behavior. How you will be villainized. How you will be praised for the wrong things. How people will address you in blogs or on the news. And how people will smugly mock or criticize you, seemingly unaware that you have feelings as a person. Now, I find this somewhat funny considering the fact that Ms. Sittenfeld created an alternate Laura Bush who doesn’t fully love her husband, had an abortion, and has a lesbian grandmother. Along the way Ms. Sittenfeld casts aspersions on the brother of Laura Bush’s former classmate, who in the story rapes, or at least very very VERY strongly pressures, an underage Alice Blackwell into a sexual relationship with him. So, I do find it hypocritical that the theme of gossip, lies, and misrepresentations of the famous (particularly politicians) is brought up in a book full of all three.
I can’t say I enjoyed the book, but I do try to get something out of what I read (even if it’s a free book that I didn’t like) and what I decided to walk away with was to be careful what I say especially on my blog regarding famous figures. They are just people and not immune from being hurt and slandered.
On a somewhat related note: Yes, the author is a woman named Curtis. I didn't get it either. I actually don't really care enough to look her up much. She's certainly a good storyteller, but I could only become interested if she ratcheted back the sex scenes.
On another somewhat related note, a "1Star Review" on Goodreads said: "I think I began to feel jipped when I realized there wasn't going to be an elaborate wedding scene in the novel, that Alice was never going to wear the wedding gown (or anything nearly like it) pictured on the book jacket." Do you hear that book cover people? Do not use false advertisement, you will disappoint the wedding dress aficionados.