Tuesday, December 8, 2009

American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld

I truly enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld's novel Prep, so I'm not sure why it took me so long to read this one, but I was definitely missing out. American Wife is a fictionalized account of the First Lady of the United States. I don't know anything about Laura Bush, so I'm not sure how much she and Alice (the main character) have in common. But, it's quite clear that Alice's husband Charlie is patterned after George Bush in all his Ivy-League, baseball team owning, cocaine snorting, dumb as rocks glory. I'm not a huge fan of politics, so I was happy to discover that 80% of the book takes place before Alice's arrival at the White House. The story begins with Alice as a child - we learn about her first love, and the skeletons in her closet that are sure to emerge at inopportune times in her husband's political career. She is a bright and compassionate elementary school librarian who devotes her summer to making papier mache characters from popular childrens' book such as Ferdinand the Bull and the Giving Tree. She suddenly finds herself caught up in a whirlwind romance with Charlie - engaged after only six weeks - and before meeting his country club family in all their summer home superiority. It doesn't take long for Charlie to emerge as a childish buffoon, and about half-way through the novel I feared that even Sittenfeld's engaging writing couldn't keep me reading about this woman who seemed too stubborn to acknowledge the train wreck she'd put herself in the middle of. I deeply despised the character of Charlie - I found him self-centered and embarrassingly ignorant. But, of course, that's the whole point because ultimately Alice must come to terms with how she allowed herself to come so far with him and question whether she ever had any control over the decisions he made and the policies he shaped. While I did not ultimately side for or against Alice, I thought Sittenfeld played out her character's position masterfully - leaving me feeling that I really could not judge her (or Laura Bush, perhaps), without ending up in a position full of countless contradictions. This novel immediately drew me in and left me with a lot to think about and discuss after I'd finished. A true sign, I believe, of a wonderful and worthwhile book.

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