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American Wife

27065418.JPGCurtis Sittenfeld usually writes about recognizable characters — they remind you of people you know. Sometimes they even remind you of yourself. Her earlier novels, Prep and The Man of My Dreams, were well reviewed. Prep made the New York Times’ list of Best Books of 2005. This time out, however, she’s writing about a slightly fictionalized version of Laura Bush, and the reviews have been more mixed. I can’t help wondering if some of the criticism says more about the critics’ feelings about Bush 43 than it does about the quality of Sittenfeld’s writing. It’s an impossible question to answer, though; the similarities are too striking to miss, even though she changes a few details. (Connie Schultz, writing for the Washington Post says “…main character Alice Blackwell does share so many traits with the current first lady that the steamy sex scenes are bound to elicit a collective ewww.” I had the same reaction).

Sittenfeld is a liberal who is highly critical of George Bush’s policies, but in 2004, she wrote an essay for salon.com entitled “Why I Love Laura Bush,” which begins:
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I’m a 28-year-old woman, a registered Democrat, and a staunch enough liberal that I take would-be epithets such as “flaming,” “knee-jerk” and “bleeding-heart” as compliments. I believe that George Bush’s policies are at best misguided and at worst evil. And yet I love Laura Bush. In fact, there is no public figure I admire more.

Sittenfeld admits that the novel is her attempt to understand Laura Bush, or at least the mysteries that surround her. I found her speculation about Laura Bush’s inner life and motivations credible. Alice Blackwell, while sometimes annoyingly passive in her dealings with her husband, does seem real.  Here’s a sampling of Alice’s soul searching:

As for those who hate me because they hate Charlie, hate me by extension, I am curious of this: At what point, in their opinion, should I have done something, and what should that something have been? Should I not have married him? Should I not have discouraged his drinking? (“Jim Beam and me, have us both” — is that what I ought to have said?) When he told me that he wanted to run for governor and I told him I’d prefer he didn’t (though I foolishly thought at least it was better than congressman or senator, at least it would keep us in Wisconsin) — when he decided that in spite of my stated preference, he was indeed going to run, should I have left him? Should I have stayed with him but not campaigned for him? Should I have stated explicitly to the public when my views differed from his? Should I have left him when he decided, also against my wishes, to run for president? Anyone who has been married, and especially anyone married for several decades, knows the union is a series of compromises; to judge the compromises I have made is, I take it, easy to do from far away.

Fictionalized versions of sitting first families — the last time I remember this happening was with the book and movie Primary Colors. If you’re game for more immersion in the current presidency, Oliver Stone’s film W — view the trailer on IMDB here — makes a good bookend to American Wife, since it focuses more on George and his troubled relationship with his father. But for the story straight from the horses’ mouths, we’ll have to wait, although publishers are reportedly in a multimillion-dollar bidding war for Laura’s memoirs. For W’s side of the story, we may have a longer wait: publishers are recommending that he wait a few years, till there’s a market for his memoirs.

author photo: Jahi Chikwendiu – The Washington Post