That’s what I thought about the entire time I was reading “American Wife.” It took enormous guts to write this book, to dive into the psyche of Laura Bush and write from the first-person (for 555 pages).
And to write and imagine with such utter, unflagging discipline. The pace is relaxed, reflective. The phrase “page turner” does not come to mind and that’s a good thing as long as you don’t mind sinking into the psyche of Alice Lindgren/Laura Bush and watching a woman come to grips with her politics, marriage and, ultimately, her power.
I am not the target audience for “American Wife.” (I don’t think.) I’m a guy in my late 50’s and I can say up until reading this book I had no real interest in learning anything more about Laura Bush. And, yes, “American Wife” isn’t directly Laura Bush and, yet, of course it is. Key character points, key plot points about Laura’s views on abortion and the war in Iraq and, of course, the tragic auto accident as a youth that colored, changed, modified her entire life. Or did it…confirm her point of view about the world? It stays with her; how could it not? At least, from Curtis Sittenfeld’s imagination the accident affected everything that followed. My hat is off to Sittenfeld for imagining—and imagining so deeply—this woman’s complexities.
Writing in first-person, Sittenfeld starts with young Alice Lindgren and develops her over the course of four main chapters in her life. I don’t know blow-by-blow how the details of Alice Lindgren’s life match up with Laura Bush but I think the key issue Sittenfeld is addressing is this:
How does an “American Wife” decide when and how to speak up, when and how to declare independence (in the case of Laura/Alice, it’s not much) and when and how to stand your ground? And, I wonder, does Sittenfeld consider “wife” a pejorative? Especially when coupled with “American?” In showing how hard it is for one woman to speak up, to assert herself, is she saying more women should?
What’s seductive about Sittenfeld’s tale is the voice she has given Laura/Alice—and how much is going on beyond her staid and Plain-Jane exterior. (Didn’t think I would encounter so many R-rated passages, for instance.) Laura/Alice is deliberate, thoughtful and only somewhat self-aware. She is dressed down, late in the book, by someone nearly twice her age. She gives in too much, stays too quiet and yet she is also somehow true to herself. At her core, she’s a librarian and all the stereotypes (not necessarily accurate ones) are at the forefront to her personality: meek, laid-back, quiet. At-your-service.
So when she gets sucked up into the world of the White House, she is still suppressing her personal attitudes. And then, just by an inch, she shifts and Sittenfeld captures that moment of self-recognition and awareness. Yes, it’s taken forever. Yes, you may have screamed at Laura/Alice long ago for her snail’s pace adjustments, but to me it’s Sittenfeld’s dedication to the character that is the marvel. If you’re angry, it’s because Sittenfeld has been successful at capturing her upbringing and the life-defining moments that shaped her character.
Of course Sittenfeld must also deliver a worthy husband for Laura/Alice and Charlie Blackwell is a sharply drawn fictional George Bush—full of himself, brash, confident, self-assured and extremely well motivated. And yet, Sittenfeld also gives us reason to see what kept them together as a couple and how Laura/Alice did her part to keep Charlie from his own bad habits, especially drinking.
I wanted Laura/Alice to be more forthright, more assertive. Who wouldn’t? But, in the end, she does things her own way and in her own style and that’s also what I admired about Sittenfeld’s talents, to stay so true to the character. “American Wife” is a piece of work—and considerable imagination.