Review

American Wife

by Curtis Sittenfeld

Let’s get this out of the way up front: If AMERICAN WIFE
were nothing more than a barely disguised attempt to imagine and
illuminate the inner life of Laura Bush, it might be entertaining
in a titillating sort of way, but hardly worth more attention than
a quickly forgotten magazine profile. In truth, Curtis
Sittenfeld’s third novel is a rich and arresting portrait of
an enduring marriage, of the inevitable compromises necessary to
reach that longevity, and of the unremitting demands of public life
and the price of fame.

Sittenfeld’s protagonist, Alice Lindgren, is born in a small
Wisconsin town in 1946, the only child of a bank manager and a
housewife. Her early years are unremarkable until a September night
in 1963 when the car she’s driving on the way to a party
collides with one driven by Andrew Imhof, a classmate with whom
she’s moving toward a relationship. Andrew is killed, and the
specter of his loss shadows Alice’s waking (and dreaming)
life.

Alice falls into a relationship with Andrew’s older brother,
Pete, and when she becomes pregnant, her grandmother takes her to
Chicago for an abortion --- a decision that plays a central role in
the novel’s denouement.

Sittenfeld fast forwards to Madison, Wisconsin in 1977, where Alice
contentedly works as an elementary school librarian and dreams
about buying a house. During a summer when she’s spending
most of her time creating papier-mâchécharacters to
decorate the library, she meets Charlie Blackwell, “someone
who found his own flaws endearing and thus concealed
nothing,” at a backyard barbecue. Charlie is the youngest of
four sons of Harold and Priscilla (nicknamed “Maj,”
short for “Majesty”) Blackwell. Harold is a former
governor of Wisconsin and unsuccessful candidate for president in
1968, and the family owns a prosperous meatpacking business. Two of
Charlie’s brothers work alongside him in the business, while
one serves in Congress. But, as Charlie puts it, “Being a
Blackwell is my full-time job.”

At first, Alice --- a registered Democrat with liberal political
sympathies --- is put off (“money and Republicans and sausage
did not strike me as a particularly tempting combination.”).
But within six weeks, she and Charlie are engaged, and six weeks
later they’re married. On the surface it’s an unlikely
match: Alice is bright, self-aware and witty, an inveterate reader
of serious novelists like Bellow and Nabokov, while Charlie prefers
to spend his evenings with a beer and pretzels, stretched out on
the couch watching a baseball game. The mystery of romantic love is
on display here in all its oddity.

Charlie’s first foray into electoral politics as a candidate
for Congress in 1978 results in a crushing defeat, and he retreats
philosophically into the family business and life of a prosperous
Milwaukee suburbanite. Ten years later, he’s a disgruntled
42-year-old, obsessed (to Alice’s annoyance) by his
“legacy.” An offer to become a part owner of the
Milwaukee Brewers and the public face of the team as its managing
partner appears it may be enough to relieve his lethargy. But
before long, he’s spending more of his time in increasingly
frequent drinking bouts and behavioral lapses that move Alice to
threaten divorce, especially after they attend a disastrous 20th
reunion of Charlie’s Princeton class. Alice’s ultimatum
abruptly ends Charlie’s drinking, and he undergoes a
religious conversion at the hands of an evangelical preacher,
Reverend Randy. Soon, he is elected governor of Wisconsin and is on
the fast track to the White House. Still, Alice is ambivalent:
“I wanted Charlie to win the election,” she comments
wryly, “but I didn’t want him to be
president.”

The final quarter of the book is set in June 2007. Blackwell,
nearing the end of his second term, presides over an unpopular
Middle East war, while trying to gain Supreme Court confirmation of
a staunchly anti-abortion female judge. Alice, pro-choice and
skeptical about the war, must face the contradictions in her public
and interior lives --- and she does so in a moving and completely
authentic fashion.

The well-known elements of the Bush story all are here, subtly
altered to present them in a fresh and original way. But no writer,
even one as adept as Curtis Sittenfeld, will ever unearth anything
approaching the objective truth of George and Laura Bush’s
relationship. What she has done, and what elevates this book to the
realm of true art, is to create a nuanced portrait of how it feels
to be the wife of a major political figure, or indeed any
celebrity. Fulfilling Hemingway’s definition of a good story,
AMERICAN WIFE feels “more true than what really
happened.” That’s the highest compliment one can pay to
this thoroughly absorbing novel.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 5, 2011

American Wife
by Curtis Sittenfeld

  • Publication Date: September 2, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400064759
  • ISBN-13: 9781400064755