I enjoyed reading Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld a couple of years ago and as part of my ongoing efforts to read other books by authors I have discovered since starting my blog, I turned to Sittenfeld’s best known novel ‘American Wife’ which was published in 2008. It is a portrait of Alice Lindgren and her path towards becoming First Lady of the United States in 2001, from her youth in Wisconsin, to marriage and motherhood in her thirties through to her life in the White House during her husband’s unpopular presidency. Knowing that the story was inspired by key events in the life of Laura Bush means it is difficult not to picture Alice’s husband Charlie Blackwell as George W. Bush who took office in the same year.
The reviews of ‘American Wife’ I have read on Goodreads understandably speculate on Sittenfeld’s intentions in fictionalising aspects of Laura Bush’s life and the blurring between fact and fiction seems to have made a lot of readers very uncomfortable. The story isn’t based on enough hard evidence to be considered a fair historical account but it’s also not disguised enough from the truth to be seen as entirely fictional. It’s a tricky balance to negotiate but for the most part, I think Sittenfeld makes it work. The key facts she uses are that Laura Bush was a librarian in small-town America before she met her future husband and his privileged family at a barbecue and that she caused a car accident at the age of seventeen which killed one of her classmates rumoured to be her boyfriend. It is this single defining moment which shapes the rest of Alice’s life and the plot focuses on the consequences of the accident including her secret abortion and turbulent friendship with schoolfriend Dena.
Sittenfeld’s portrait of Alice as a thoughtful introvert is largely sympathetic even if her main protagonist can also be frustratingly passive at times. She succeeds in showing why someone like Alice would choose to marry and later stay married to someone like Charlie who is portrayed as charismatic but also arrogant and crude. However, the final part of the story which jumps forward to Charlie’s second term at the White House is considerably less nuanced to the extent where it becomes almost impossible for Sittenfeld to disguise her own criticisms of the Bush presidency behind Alice’s account of events.
Although not an outright dystopia this time, Sittenfeld’s third novel turned out to be another timely read during the inauguration of Donald Trump just as it must have been at the time of George W. Bush’s departure. I would dearly love to know if some of Alice’s closing remarks would resonate with Melania right now: “All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power.”