- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

Meet Amanda Bright, wife of an ambitious Washington insider and stay-at-home mother of two.

She’s a lot like Danielle Crittenden, wife of former White House speechwriter David Frum — and she should be. Mrs. Crittenden created Amanda, the heroine of her first novel, an inside-the-Beltway saga called “Amanda [email protected]

Her book has the distinction of being not only the first novel ever serialized by the Wall Street Journal, but also, the author proudly notes, the first “chick lit” book to feature antitrust law as a plot device.

And though the novel has spawned some gossip among Washingtonians about just which characters are based on which real personalities, Mrs. Crittenden says, “Amanda [email protected]” is really about issues confronting modern women.

“I find the modern woman’s life absolutely riveting,” she says. “We’ve gone through so many changes in the past 30 years — our whole attitude toward motherhood and marriage and how that has changed, I think, is the fundamental question that interests me. And how does an ambitious woman take advantage of all the opportunities we have now and also be a mother?”

She has addressed those issues before as a journalist and author, during five years as editor of the Women’s Quarterly, and in her 1999 book, “What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us.” But she found the nonfiction approach limiting.

“I found the problem with writing about women’s issues in nonfiction is it doesn’t really matter what you say — whether you’re right or left or pro-working mothers, anti-working mothers, whatever you happen to be — it is so controversial,” Mrs. Crittenden says. “When you write about it in nonfiction, like I did with my last book, you’re practically burnt at the stake. It’s very polarizing.”

Being “burnt at the stake” for offending feminists is nothing new for her. In 1987 she wrote an article for a magazine in her native Toronto that so offended women readers that the next month’s issue featured a photo of her article literally being burned.

“I was sort of outraged by what the feminist organizations were claiming on behalf of women,” Mrs. Crittenden says.

“What were strong feminist ideas a generation ago are today’s utter conventional wisdom,” she says. “I grew up, and women younger than me grew up, without even challenging these assumptions about how our lives were going to go, about career, about marriage. I think the job of any writer … is to look at conventional wisdom and challenge it.”

She comes from a newspaper family. Both her parents were newspaper writers, as were both her stepfather and stepmother.

“I didn’t go to college. The minute I finished high school, I took a summer job on the [Toronto Sun] and never looked back,” she says.

She later spent more than year as a free-lance correspondent in such places as South Africa and China before returning to Toronto, where she met her husband — then just out of Harvard Law School but working as an editor.

Married in 1988, the couple moved to New York, where Mr. Frum worked on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. They now have three children, an 11-year-old daughter, a 9-year-old son and a 18-month-old girl.

While she had written and published short fiction before, Mrs. Crittenden was inspired to write her first novel by a canceled magazine article. She had an assignment from George magazine “about the whole new chic-ness of being an at-home mother.”

She interviewed career women who were “suddenly … having children and deciding to stay at home,” she says.

“I was fascinated by this trend, particularly among the overachieving women — what happened to them, what made them want to stay at home. This whole almost-comic transition from dealing with co-workers to dealing with toddlers.”

But the magazine went out of business in March 2001, before the article was published, and Mrs. Crittenden says, “The whole idea of Amanda Bright came to me, and I said, ‘I want to do this in fiction. This is too good a topic for nonfiction. The only way I can write about it is through fiction.’”

She pitched the idea of serializing the novel to the Wall Street Journal, which published the first chapter in its Friday arts section then ran further installments on its Web site in the summer of 2001. It took another two years to get the book into hardback.

Mrs. Crittenden says writing a novel involves as much research as nonfiction writing. “If it’s not real, it’s going to fail as a novel.” She had “a wonderful mole” at the Justice Department who helped her research the setting where her heroine’s husband, Bob Bright, works as an antitrust lawyer.

Some readers thought the book was “a roman a clef about our marriage,” she says, since Bob Bright went to work at the Justice Department about the same time Mr. Frum went to work at the White House.

Both the Frums and the Brights live in Northwest.

Amanda Bright, however, is a Democrat who formerly worked at the National Endowment for the Arts.

“It was important she be a Democrat, a very feminist mother,” says Mrs. Crittenden, who says she enjoyed “just the sheer comic opportunities of taking a woman like that and putting her in this situation.”

If the Bright family is not an exact copy of her own, Mrs. Crittenden’s novel does have an almost prophetic plot twist: Amanda Bright gets her husband in trouble when she divulges some inside information to a newspaper gossip columnist.

That was written in 2001, Mrs. Crittenden points out, months before the real-life incident in which she wrote an e-mail to friends boasting that her husband had helped craft the phrase “axis of evil” in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address — an e-mail that made news and embarrassed the previously leakproof administration.

“At the time [the ‘axis of evil’ controversy] was going on, half of me was totally mortified. Half of me found it really interesting as a writer,” Mrs. Crittenden says. As she was rewriting the original serial installments for the novel, she added a few real-life tidbits, such as chasing a New York Post photographer off her front porch. “I guess they wanted us at the door, looking startled.”

Between her husband’s ideological battles — Mr. Frum ruffled feathers earlier this year with a National Review cover story attacking “paleo-conservatives” including Robert Novak — and her own war against feminists, Mrs. Crittenden says her family keeps busy.

“We’ve both been doing it for so long that it feels natural,” she says. “I think it’s been a very good division of labor between the two of us. We’re not fighting for the same territory. We each have our own bunkers that we’re manning.”

And having produced one novel from her own “bunker,” she plans more.

“I’m going to stick to fiction. I love it.”

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