Tuesday, September 2, 2008

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld - 576 pgs

Book CoverAlice Lindgren is a small town girl growing up in 1950's Wisconsin. She has a loving family life and is particularly close to her stylish and witty grandmother, who also lives with her family. When Alice becomes a teenager, she is involved in a tragic accident that has serious repercussions for herself and a young boy in whom she is interested. Despite setbacks after the accident, Alice moves on with her life and becomes a librarian in a public school. She is looking forward to buying a house and spending time with friends when she meets the handsome and enigmatic Charlie Blackwell. Charlie's family owns the meat plant where he has a high profile job, and he and his family are extremely wealthy. Though Alice at first resists Charlie's advances, they become a couple and are soon married. In an effort to carve out a legacy for himself, Charlie tries to obtain work in other fields, eventually running for political office, first as Governor, and ultimately President. Alice continuously supports Charlie even though she doesn't want him to run for office, choosing silence instead of dissent. In addition to having to deal with his large boisterous family, she has to become the nation's First Lady. Throughout Alice and Charlie's marriage, they share the joy of raising a child and the tumultuous effects of addiction, fame, and power.

This book was obliquely modeled after the life and times of Laura Bush, and as I was reading, I was wondering just how much was fiction and how much was truth. Whether this account is accurate or highly embellished, I tried to view the book as a novel of complete fiction, as to speculate too much about the author's intended subject may have colored my view on the book unnecessarily. First of all, though Alice was a fantastically deep character who seemed to know her emotions and behaviors well, she came off as somewhat of a pushover. When Charlie or his family treat her shabbily, she rolls over and quietly takes the abuse. There were times I felt so frustrated at her meekness, letting her husband dictate their way of life and having adult temper tantrums when he didn't get his way. Alice, meanwhile, quietly endures, never wanting to be a nag or obstacle for him. Sure, in her moments of reflection, we see that Alice really does have an opinion, and she does aspire to better things, but she never puts that into action. I would have liked her more if she would have been stronger and told Charlie how she felt, instead of being a supplicant to all of his needs. Though Charlie does make a turnaround in his behavior, the turnaround seems half-hearted. Charlie still did what Charlie wanted, despite Alice's wishes, only now he did it in a nicer way. It was odd to see a character who was so aware of her emotions, so tuned into what was right and how she was feeling, act so submissive to her true beliefs. In some ways this made her drab and unscrupulous. She would have been far more able to control her situation and life if she only spoke up! The result is that she has a higher popularity rating then her husband, but while being decidedly differing in her beliefs, she continues to meekly support him. I liked Alice. Mostly. I liked her intelligence, tact and pragmatism, but I didn't like her docile and modest attitude. Her inability to speak up and act decisively made her seem weak and ineffectual.

I did not at all like Charlie Blackwell. I found him to be egotistical and self-centered. He was disrespectful to almost everyone and had a huge reckless streak. I found it hard to sympathize with him or to take him seriously. It never became clear to me why Alice married him, and often it seemed he wore her down with all his antics. Charlie never seemed to have the proper gravity that a man in a high position must have in order to be respected, and his embracing of religion seemed to be devised to deflect negative repercussions of his behavior. At times pushy, at times whiny, Charlie was always self-absorbed. I was so angry when he repeatedly left Alice in uncomfortable situations to tend to his whims. He could never be counted upon. He was also mildly racist, and though these episodes were not expounded upon, Charlie's moral leanings were certainly clear to the reader. It was clear to see why Alice was always so tired and brow-beaten.

Although these were flawed characters, the book was very well written and interesting. Alice was a particularly vivid character, and at times I marveled at her insights and intellect. Her portrayal was very detailed and she seemed very conscious of herself and her emotions. Though the book seems to skip some significant spaces in time, it wasn't disjointed or jumpy. I would have liked to know a little bit more about the sections of their midlife, as that was curiously left out, but that's a minor quibble. I also liked the tone of the book. It was serious but not melodramatic, a perfect balance of weightiness and candor. I thought that the years relating Alice's childhood were the best sections of the book, as the author really gave a lot of flavor to the portrayal of her family, especially her grandmother, an astute and canny bibliophile. I believe the narrative voice in this book was extremely well done. And while I liked Alice, I disliked some of the choices she made. Overall I enjoyed this look at the life of a First Lady, but was ultimately left with more questions than answers regarding Alice. Is she meant to seem thin-skinned, or quietly wise? I would invite you to read this very interesting book, and see for yourself.


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