American Wife
By Curtis Sittenfeld

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Do you ever see someone famous and think about what it’s like to be them or what it would be like to live their life? Or do you ever wonder what your life would be like if it took some incredibly different turn? If you married into vast, ridiculous wealth and privilege?

That’s what American Wife is, an imagining of a life inspired by the life and personality of first lady, Laura Bush. It is not a book based on her life but sparked by public situations and personalities and imagined empathy. It’s not just about politics and her marriage to the President. That comes later, much later. There is a whole beautiful story, a whole lifetime before that happens.

I found it fascinating. I saw myself in the main character, Alice. I do that with many books I read. I interpret a character by how similar she is to me, how much I can personally relate. But I don’t always do that and I don’t have to relate to a character to understand a story. Some books aren’t like that. Some characters I fall in love with or I dislike or I feel sisterhood with or learn from or just watch them live on the page.

I related so completely to Curtis Sittenfeld’s main character, Alice Lindgren Blackwell. Her actions and emotional life are so complex but also simple. Her life is incredibly sheltered and incredibly blessed. She does for others but feels like she should be doing more, especially when she is given the power to do more.

As first lady she chooses issues that are not controversial, Issues that are self-evident and do not require her to make an argument about whether they are right or wrong. Like me, she is not a fighter or a protester but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel or doesn’t act in other ways.

There are also complex relationships with others in her life, her fascinating grandmother, her childhood best friend, her high school love, her husband. Relationships are complex. You can love the people in your life so deeply and completely yet disagree with them strongly but choose to let it go. I regularly choose to let it go. Everyone has flaws. I certainly do.

I wonder if others feel the same connection to this character. I wonder if these are common thoughts women have or only a few of us. I feel certain it is generational but is it generational to people born before 1975 or generational to women who are in the middle of life? I wonder if other people would agree that I’m like Alice or if my perception of myself are not the same as my outward persona.

I know there are some people, some of my friends who really won’t like this book. For one thing, it’s very long. The audio was over 23 hours! It addresses issues like homosexuality, abortion, race issues, class issues, the war in Iraq, 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, born-again Christianity, agnosticism.

Alice’s husband, Charlie Blackwell is so much like my perception of George Bush – I would love to have a few beers with him but have him leading the free world, not so much.  And there’s a little too much graphic sex with this guy who is so much like the former President…I feel grossed out.

Some reviewers were outraged at this seeming invasion of privacy of a public figure.  They think fictionalizing the life of Laura Bush was a cowardly way to push a personal agenda.  I don’t think so.  I just think it was inspiration.

This is the third book I’ve read by Curtis Sittenfeld. They’re all different.   She’s definitely well-educated and well-read. I read Prep years ago, in 2005, when it was first published. I liked it but it made me uncomfortable… very angsty.  I read Eligible a few months ago. It’s a fun, silly, sassy modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I read Sisterland a few months ago, also, and it’s an odd book that I liked but didn’t.

Her writing is good. She is very in tune with people, how complicated we are, how we don’t always want what’s best for us and we don’t understand why. She’s very good at capturing moments between people, those moments where you know exactly what they’re feeling and your heart is breaking with them.  But sometimes the writing gets slow, bogged down in the intimacies of detail and character instead of moving forward.  The sex seems gratuitius, and did I mention it’s with George Bush, oh wait, only inspired by him.  ew.

So anyway, did I mention Alice is an avid reader, like me. My friends, if you decide to read this book, let’s have lunch or a drink and have a two person book club. I have a lot to talk about!

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