Saturday, April 11, 2009

93 (2009 #18). American Wife

by Curtis Sittenfeld

I got this book from the Random House Readers' Circle program - it was a surprise. It's a thinly veiled novelization the life of Laura Bush. Of course, the names have been changed, as has the location (they're from Wisconsin, not Texas). Of course the book has been made more "scandalicious": Alice Lindgren Blackwell, the future First Lady, has a lesbian grandmother, her first sex with the brother of her high school boyfriend (after he dies when she crashes into his car – the fact that Laura Bush had a similar accident at 17 is true), and an abortion. Oh, and her childhood best friend accuses her of boyfriend-stealing (although to me it seems to be the other way around).

Some facts are altered - her father-in-law was only a former governor, not a former vice-president and president, and her mother-in-law is a snob whose own children (four boys, one a Congressman, no girls) call her "Maj," short for "Her Majesty," a nickname she apparently likes. (This was puzzling to me, as I always thought of Barbara Bush as mild-mannered - perhaps "Maj" was based more on Barbara's mother-in-law, based on hints in a July 2000 article in the New York Times). Charlie and Alice Blackwell only have one daughter, not twins. But Charlie does become co-owner of a baseball team (the Milwaukee Brewers, not the Texas Rangers) and governor of his state, and eventually United States President.

The reader (should) know this book is fiction, but there’s enough fact in it to make one wonder...what if?

Author Curtis Sittenfeld, who described herself as “a 28-year-old woman, a registered Democrat, and a staunch enough liberal,” first wrote of her admiration for Laura Bush in a 2004 Salon story. In an interview in the same journal shortly after American Wife was published in 2008, Sittenfeld describes the book as “loosely inspired by Laura Bush and that Laura Bush's life is a point of departure.” She cautions, “If you don't know if something in the book has some real life parallel to the Bushes, then you should assume it's made up…. I feel like 85 percent of this book is made up.”

She had read Ann Gerhart’s Laura Bush biography, The Perfect Wife, and “I just started writing based on what I recalled from that. I'm obsessed with structure in writing, so I conceived of this book as having four sections, each one built around a major real-life event that happened to Laura Bush. Everything else is made up. So I felt that I was creating a character, and didn't need to research Laura Bush's soul.” The four sections are designated by addresses: Alice’s childhood home, her home in Madison while a young teacher and librarian, her home with Charlie in Milwaukee, and of course 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I liked this book much more than I thought I would. I especially enjoyed the plot twists with Alice’s former best friend and the dead boyfriend’s brother. I admire both George and Laura Bush (I think his intelligence is underrated), but I can see how some conservatives will be bothered by this book, particularly when they forget it IS fiction. Sittenfeld also doesn’t do a very good job of masking her personal dislike of Charlie/George, particularly in the last section, although even she has said, “I think Democrats are as likely to find it too sympathetic as Republicans are likely to find it too unsympathetic....I see Bush as a president and as a person separately....I understand that there are people out there who either can't or don't want to make that distinction.”


  1. Great review. Makes me want to read it.

  2. I'll try to remember to bring it tomorrow if you like. I'm in no rush to get it back - just by the end of the year.