American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Published in 2008
My copy: Second-hand paperback
In the year 2000, in the closest election in American history, Alice Blackwell’s husband becomes president of the United States. Their time in the White House proves to be heady, tumultuous, and
But it is Alice’s own story – that of a kind, bookish, only child born in the 1940s Midwest who comes to inhabit a life of dizzying wealth and power – that is itself remarkable. Alice candidly describes her small-town upbringing, and the tragedy that shaped her identity; she recalls her early adulthood as a librarian, and her surprising courtship with the man who swept her off her feet; she tells of the crisis that almost ended their marriage; and she confides the privileges and difficulties of being first lady, a role that is uniquely cloistered and public, secretive and exposed.
This novel is based on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush, who is not someone I know anything about but, having done a little research when reading this novel, there are many significant events that are reflected in Alice’s story.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect with this novel, and actually Alice is only in the White House for the final fifth or so of the book. The earlier parts deal with her childhood and her family, including her eccentric and quirky grandmother, and events that occur in Alice’s teens are hugely relevant throughout the novel.
The story is well written and Alice is an interesting character, and I found myself enjoying her story. However, when she meets the future President I did find myself a bit less enamoured of the novel. He is such an irritating character, as are pretty much all the members of his extended family, that I found the sections involving them a bit annoying and sometimes overly long. I also couldn’t really understand what Alice saw in him, and why she gave up her relatively happy life to be with him. And I didn’t really understand what the future President saw in Alice either! They seemed like an odd couple overall, and I think this affected my enjoyment of the latter parts of the novel.
I also found the political elements of the novel a bit tedious, although this is more my personal taste than anything against the book. Some of the author’s observations were really interesting, and the narrator’s reflections on life as a First Lady were definitely unique for me, but the White House section didn’t grip me as much as it should have, and actually I think the novel was more interesting without the political side of things (which I realise would kind of defeat the object of the book!).
I find it hard to sum up how I felt about this novel overall. I did enjoy many parts of it and it was very well written, but it did seem overly long and just dragged in parts, and I felt at times like it would never end! The political side of the novel wasn’t so interesting to me, and I think the fundamental issue for me was that I found the relationship between the First Lady and the President a bit implausible – he was such an idiot and I couldn’t understand why Alice liked him at all!