Tuesday, July 07, 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I really wanted to hate this book. First of all, I wasn't interested in reading a thinly veiled fictionalized version of a famous person's life, especially not a currently living famous person. Second, I was not interested in a sympathetic portrayal of George W. or Laura Bush. And, third, the book was written by Curtis Sittenfeld.

I really love Sittenfeld's writing. But.

In high school, I was enchanted by the idea of boarding schools. She applied for scholarships and went to one. All my life, I've wanted to be a writer. She started selling her stories when I was still thinking vaguely about what I'd want to write someday. I love NPR. She writes for This American Life. I wasn't a feminist until I read her essay "Your Life as a Girl" in college and realized that she even writes my own life experiences better than I do. We're about the same age, but she's done everything both first and better than me. She's like a slightly younger, much smarter, hipper, and more talented big sister. Feh.

So I didn't want to like American Wife. And of course it was fabulous. Sigh.

I even identified with the main character. For heaven's sake, she was modeled on Laura Bush! Blast and tarnation.

One of my book clubs discussed this book tonight and we all liked it. My complaint: Part 4 was less powerful than the rest of the novel. I think this was partially because it was written in the present tense and partially because it was based on current events that we all know much more about and the politics got a little ahead of the story. I didn't feel the intense emotional connection with Alice Blackwell's character that I felt in the earlier sections. In fact, I found myself picturing Laura Bush's face as the narrator talked about dealing with fame. These criticisms do not outweigh the wonderfulness of the rest of the book.

It's a good book. Read it and let me know what you think!


Jessica said...

"Blast and tarnation."

I adore you.

Sarahlynn said...

Thanks. :)

I periodically consider cleaning up my language. Oddly enough, my girls never mimic me saying "F*&k," which I probably do most frequently around Paul (I know it really bothers him). They do both say "Fiddle-faddle," though, which I think it a lot cuter for them than for me.

Amy said...

I just finished American Wife, too. It was one of those that I picked up a few weeks ago and forgot about, so I didn't realize that it was about the Bushes until about halfway through, when I asked BJ, "Didn't George Bush own a baseball team or something?"

I didn't like the last part, either. I thought the first three were much better. Maybe he should've ended the book when they get elected, rather than dragging it out to the bitter end. I wonder how close it is to reality.

Sarahlynn said...

Amy, it's so funny that you read the book without realizing it was a fictionalized account of Laura Bush's life!

And you must have been really impressed that a man wrote her so well. (Actually, Curtis is Sittenfeld's middle name; she's a woman. But if you didn't know anything about the book or author, I can see how you'd be confused.)

I wondered the same thing about the end, whether it might not have been better to just end before the Presidency. But then I figured readers would feel cheated. After all, that was the question the story asked from the beginning: how can a woman love a man whose beliefs are so different from her own, especially when the man's beliefs set national policy?

So I think the novel had to cover the Presidency. I just wish Sittenfeld had focused more on the Blackwells' home life, as in the earlier sections. A little less rumination about dealing with fame, a little less explanation for Laura Bush's public role (name switch used intentionally), a little more story.

A lot of the major plot points are based in fact, but I too wonder how much of the internal/secret stuff is close to reality (like to what extent Laura agrees with George on religion, on abortion, on the war, etc.)

Christina O. said...

I just finished this also. My chief gripe about the last part was how quickly Charlie went from dashing to boob (in the book, not in years); granted he started getting goofy about the time he bought the baseball team, but by the last part, he was full-on goofball. Since she skipped the gubernatorial years, I wondered if that's where he finally started to snap.

I have the Laura Bush book that she cites in the afterward on my to-read list.

Sarahlynn said...

I thought the "snap" moment was the conversion, but you're right that we didn't see much from the period right after that. It's amazing how OK Alice was with Charlie's big life change.

In my book club, several women are married to men with different political convictions, and most agreed that they were OK with it . . . as long as they were respectful to one another and about each others' beliefs.

I would NOT be OK with my husband calling me a "sinner" as Charlie did his wife. (Of course we all sin, but he was very judgmental about Alice's choices and beliefs.)

Amanda said...

I'm glad to hear it's good - I've read Prep and The Man of My Dreams already and this one's on my bookshelf. Maybe good vacation reading.

Amanda said...

I'm glad to hear it's good - I've read Prep and The Man of My Dreams already and this one's on my bookshelf. Maybe good vacation reading.

Sarahlynn said...

I hope you like it, too. It's definitely not for everyone (slow paced, introspective) but since you liked Prep, you already know what Sittenfeld's all about. :)

Cate said...

I read it. I liked it. Not as much as Prep, but it was good.

Your Life As a Girl -- that blew me away when I read it. I stumbled across it by chance. So great.

Sarahlynn said...

It's not an exaggeration to say that reading that essay was a life changing moment for me.