By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, $26, 555 pages
REVIEWED BY STEPHANIE DEUTSCH
In 2004, a young writer named Curtis Sittenfeld wrote an article for Salon.com declaring herself “a staunch liberal who hates George W.” but one who, nonetheless, nurtured warm feelings towards the president’s wife. “There is no public figure I admire more,” she wrote of Laura Bush, describing her as “sincere, down-to-earth, smart - a role model for all Americans.” Now, as the Bushes near the end of their time in Washington, Ms. Sittenfeld (who in the intervening years has written two well-received novels, “Prep” and “The Man of My Dreams”) has published “American Wife.” The image on the dust jacket of the book now working its way up best-seller lists calls to mind Jacqueline Kennedy, (who wore white satin and gloves with more panache than anyone before or since), but the story inside is definitely inspired by the life of the current first lady. Ms. Sittenfeld’s fictional telling of it is her attempt to make sense of that life and of the marriage that is central to it.
Biographers, of course, do much the same thing — through research, interviews and imagination they try to give shape and context to an individual’s experience, to show how it fits into its time, to distill the essence of a life. Having been the subject of two biographies, Laura Bush’s life story is well known, at least in terms of the basic facts. She grew up in Midland, a small town in west Texas, the only child of loving parents. When she was 17 and on her way to a party, she drove through a stop sign and crashed into another car, killing the driver, a boy from her school with whom she was friendly. After college, Mrs. Bush became an elementary school English teacher and librarian. At the age of 31, at a friend´s backyard barbecue, she met the son of the politically prominent Bush family and, married him a few months later.
Her husband ran for Congress and lost and, later, owned a baseball team. At 42, having acquired a reputation as a heavy drinker and more than one DUI, attributing his decision to his wife’s influence and to newly-found Christian faith, he gave up drinking. George Bush went on to become Texas governor and, then president. In Washington, as she did in Austin, Mrs. Bush has used her position to promote literacy programs and has sponsored events related to reading and to books. Her husband is closely identified with an unpopular war and widely disliked but polls consistently show his wife to be one of the most admired women in the country.
In most respects, this is the story of Alice Blackwell, nee Lindgren, described in “American Wife.” Ms. Sittenfeld sets her story into four parts, each set in a crucial locale — the small town in rural Wisconsin that stands in for Midland, Texas, where Alice grows up (the real life Laura Welch lived on Humble Avenue; her fictional counterpart’s home is on Amity Lane); the Madison apartment where she lives as a young woman; the luxurious suburban home she occupies early in her marriage; and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
With the freedom that is denied to biographers, Ms. Sittenfeld uses a first person narration to bring Alice to life with a lively inner monologue — the eager anticipation of the party she is on her way to that distracts the normally cautious Alice and precipitates the accident that disrupts her youth; the incipient romantic feelings towards the accident’s victim that give the episode added poignancy; the deadened passivity that leads her into a disastrous entanglement with the dead boy’s brother; the doubts and excitement set off by her meeting with Charlie Blackwell, the charming but seemingly lightweight son of a formidably wealthy and well-connected family; the love of teaching, of reading and literature that sustain her (on her first weekend visit to the Blackwells’ she finds relief from the frenetic activity reading Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”; the frustration with Charlie’s drinking that builds and precipitates a crisis that threatens her marriage.
As the president’s wife, Alice struggles with questions — how should she handle her unwelcome fame, how involved can she or should she be in specific areas of policy, what if any responsibility does she bear for the war so identified with her husband? Disagreeing with him about it and also on the issue of abortion (“unfortunate, yes, but immoral, no”), how can she be true to her convictions but also love and honor her husband? The book ends with some improbable plot twists that allow for a moving scene where Alice addresses, though she cannot fully answer or resolve, these questions.
Ms. Sittenfeld builds her telling, like much modern fiction, less on narrative sweep than on a series of lively scenes and conversations. To Alice’s calm, sensible, self-aware inner voice (she refers to herself as having long ago become “my own confidant”) are added her (fictional) grandmother’s slightly cynical, often astute observations about books and people, her mother’s calm resignation, the emotionalism of her best friend Dena (another fictional creation), her daughter Ella’s vivacity, and Charlie’s exuberant vulgarity.
Initially, Alice finds his “arrogance … really rather extraordinary.” But she is also drawn to him. Thirty-one and lonely, Alice gives in to Charlie’s high spirits, to the sense she gets from him that life is “an adventure” rather than the way she experiences it, as “a series of obligations.” Alice, a Democrat, finds much to disapprove of about Charlie with his breezy attitude and lack of a real job but this doesn’t include politics, which they rarely discuss. “My convictions were internal,” she muses. “I’d rarely seen the point in expressing them aloud, and if I had, my entire political outlook could have been summarized by the statement that I felt bad for poor people and was glad abortion had become legal.” And the sex is good. It is when she sees Charlie naked for the first time that Alice decides she loves him. She doesn’t approve of Charlie or of his family but she really likes him.
This profound contradiction is at the heart of the book. When Alice goes for her first visit to the Blackwell family compound, there is endless juvenile banter among Charlie and his brothers. At cocktail time, one of the brothers toasts Alice with a verse way too crude to stand a chance of being quoted here. In the hallway, Charlie proudly shows off a family photo, a shot from his brother’s wedding, in which he exposes himself. “Really,” Alice thinks, “the Blackwells were exactly like sixth grade boys at Liess (the school where she teaches), the ones who’d use a dirty word in earshot of a teacher, waiting for a reaction …” The same might be said of Ms. Sittenfeld, who seems to relish this aspect of the narrative. The scene at the Blackwells’, with the endless teasing, vulgar jokes, nasty gossip, dull talk of tennis and the merriment caused by the thin walls of the one bathroom used by 20 people, goes on for 50 pages. The sex scenes are detailed and frequent. Charlie’s delight in audibly “breaking wind” is a recurring theme.
It is close to the end of this long book that Alice finally tires of Charlie’s drinking and the callous behavior it enables. Taking their young daughter with her, she leaves him for several weeks. During her absence, Charlie changes and Alice returns to a husband who tells her, “From now on, I’m going to be the man you deserve.” Relieved, Alice accepts her husband’s transformation without showing any interest in what precipitated it or what it might mean for him. It is mentioned again, briefly, when Alice describes the story that it was she who forced him to quit drinking as a “false anecdote” and observes that Charlie’s “religiosity” turned out to be an asset when he successfully ran for office. Charlie, she says, sees himself as a “messiah-like” figure, a notion she finds “preposterous” and “an act of either such cynicism or such bottomless hubris that it would be impossible to say which is worse.” She simultaneously loves and feels profoundly alienated from her husband.
In the end, Ms. Sittenfeld can only explain this - the contradiction she suspected and which drew her to this story - by observing that the attractions that draw people to each are mysterious; that the ties that bind marriage partners together are often hard for people outside the relationship to appreciate. Sometimes they are a source of wonder even to the participants themselves. Marriage - the Bushes’ or anyone else’s - is often a greater thing than the sum of its parts and sex is an important part of the glue that holds the partners together.
That she (herself recently married) could seriously explore these fascinating questions while writing multiple scenes that portray the president she despises as a crude buffoon must have been, for Ms. Sittenfeld, icing on the cake.
• Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.