Tuesday, September 6, 2011

41. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld




As you know, I've been looking forward to this one for a while, especially after I snagged it recently in a bargain bin. Sittenfeld's Prep was a book that made a big impression on me and made me vow never to be like her passive-aggressive protagonist, Lee Fiora.

American Wife has a much more likable protagonist in Alice Blackwell,the fictional counterpart of Laura Bush. The novel chronicles Alice's life at four addresses, her childhood home in Riley, Wisconsin, her bachelorette pad in Madison when she works as a school librarian and meets husband-to-be Charlie Blackwell (fictional counterpart of George W. Bush), her home with Charlie and their daughter in a Milwaukee suburb when she considers leaving him, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when she's re-considering her choice to stay silent on issues where she disagrees with her husband the President. Like Prep, this novel is written in retrospect and often re-counts events out of order. While I enjoyed the thoughtful commentary this enabled, and these comments were often the best part of the book, the continuous switching back to an earlier time or explanations of the past to make sense of the present were jarring. I think there could have been a much more linear storyline without sacrificing the retrospective commentary.

I think Sittenfeld manages here to create a complete and complex character in Alice Blackwell, someone who, if not entirely representative of Laura Bush, is reflective of certain characteristics of some American women and wives of the elite in particular. Alice is quiet, bookish, and not particularly political, but she has ideas, passions, and priorities of her own. She falls in love, really in love with Charlie Blackwell, and the portrayal of their courtship is achingly sweet and real. She does assert her opinions to Charlie in private, though she agrees never to contradict him in public, a deal that she is comfortable with for a long time. Sittenfeld delicately inserts into the storyline issues like homosexuality, abortion, religion, racism, sexism, and class privilege, but these themes make sense within the context of Alice's fictional life and seem to arise naturally. This is not a black-and-white story, and Sittenfeld understands that, although perhaps she makes Alice Blackwell a little more conflicted than she might actually be.

The line that I think best sums up the complications of Alice Blackwell and perhaps of a segment of American women is; 'If I am diffident, then my diffidence stems in part from my aversion to arriving hastily at decisions. (519)" She continues, "During the lead-up to the war, I sincerely didn't know what I thought the right course of action was; I read articles for both sides and I found convincing arguments in each." If Charlie Blackwell is confident, if he is naive, simplistic, pigheaded, his wife is too thoughtful to go ahead with such momentous decisions. I think this might partially be how we socialize boys and girls, where boys are encouraged to be impulsive and girls are encouraged to consider everyone's feelings. There are still some even older ideas that women concern themselves with private, domestic life while men concern themselves with public life. Add to this the particular circumstances of Alice's life and it's no wonder she feels the way she does. I can't fault Alice in this book and even Charlie is charming in his love for his wife. Sittenfeld reminds us again that people are people and nothing is as plain as the news media would have us believe.

Recommended to fans of literary, character-driven fiction , although it may be more palatable to those of a liberal political persuasion.

1 comment:

litlove said...

What a lovely review! I read this a couple of years ago and it made a big impression on me, too. I thought Sittenfeld drew the character portraits of Alice and Charlie brilliantly. It's certainly a book that sticks in the mind after reading it.