Wednesday, September 24, 2008

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

In her latest ambitious novel, Curtis Sittenfeld tackles the life of a fictional first lady. Although not acknowledged anywhere in the book, the heroine of Sittenfeld's book is clearly based on Laura Bush. Combining actual events from Mrs. Bush's life with fictional characters and happenings, she draws a portrait of a quiet yet strong woman.

Alice Lindgren is a reserved, bookish young lady, the only child of equally reserved parents who grows up in a small Wisconsin town. Her liberal-minded and book-loving grandmother also resides with them, and is a very big influence on Alice during her formative years and beyond. Alice grows up sheltered and loved, but is involved in a tragic accident during her senior year of high school that thrusts her into the adult world and haunts her throughout her life. Despite the tragedy, Alice is able to continue on with her life, obtaining her master's degree and becoming a school librarian. She's also involved in a couple dating relationships, but nothing with any staying power, until she meets Charlie Blackwell at a party. Charlie is handsome, charming, fun-loving and a bit on the wild side, as well as a member of one of Wisconsin's most powerful and rich families. They enter a whirlwind relationship, becoming engaged after just 6 weeks of dating. When Alice meets her future in-laws at the family's summer compound in Door County, she realizes just how different she and Charlie are, but they persevere on, marrying a short time later. Alice stands by her man as he undergoes an unsuccessful run for the Wisconsin State Congress.

The novel then follows Alice and Charlie through the years - having a child, establishing themselves in a wealthy Milwaukee suburb, and living the good life. All the while, feeling guilty about her good fortune, Alice is secretly sending donations to worthy charities, something that will ironically benefit her husband down the line. Eventually, after a few trials in their marriage, Charlie settles down and gives politics another try. Alice reluctantly finds herself the First Lady of Wisconsin, then the First Lady of the nation.

The book is very well-written and engaging most of the way through. I did get bogged down in the final section, although I am not sure why, and it seemed as if it took me forever to finish the book. It is a fascinating look at how a woman manages to hang on to herself and her views while married to a man whose very public policies and practices do not line up with her own values. While this is a work of fiction, it did pique my interest in our current First Lady, and I now have more knowledge and respect for Laura Bush as an individual as a result.

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