Book Review ~ American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Summary ~ American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld:

On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband’s presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House–and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, “almost in opposition to itself.”

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie.

As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek–one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie’s tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?

In Alice Blackwell, New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has created her most dynamic and complex heroine yet. American Wife is a gorgeously written novel that weaves class, wealth, race, and the exigencies of fate into a brilliant tapestry–a novel in which the unexpected becomes inevitable, and the pleasures and pain of intimacy and love are laid bare.

Are we living the life we are meant to live?  That is a big question to ask yourself when you are the First Lady of the United States of America.  A story of a fictional woman with so many realistic characteristics, feelings, expressions and faults, Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife  invites you in and doesn’t let you go, even when the last word has been read.  It’s easy to notice some similarities between Sittenfeld’s fictional character, Alice Blackwell, and our now former First lady, Laura Bush, but if you can just read American Wife without researching the real thing, you will be entertained, provoked and you’ll get to know a wonderful and likable character in modern day American fiction.  It is also these similarities between fact and fiction that makes me glad I read American Wife when I did.  I have completed reading this book in the wake of the true life former First Family’s departure from the Washington, national and global spotlight.

American Wife looks at its main character, Alice Blackwell, over her first sixty-one years.  We meet her where the end of the book leaves off, as the wife of The President of the United States but then Alice takes us back with her as she re-evaluates her life and remembers all of the colorful characters that have helped mold her into what she is today.  Alice experiences sadness that some never face in their whole lifetime during the vulnerable and forming years of high school.    It is these events that cause her to question whether she really is deserving of the great pleasures and successes she experiences later in life.

American Wife consists of four parts which are titled with the addresses she lives her life at.  First is her parent’s house followed a few years later by the apartment where she resides when she first meets her future husband, Charlie Blackwell.  Her third home is the beautiful, cozy and sometimes too big but not quite big enough McMansion where Charlie and Alice start to raise their daughter Ella (who at times reminded me of what I know about Chelsea Clinton) and begin to learn about each other in a way that changes them for good but also for better.  Of course the fourth part is titled 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the address of The White House.  At first I wished that Sittenfeld wasn’t leaving such big gaps of time between these sections but throughout she did keep things fresh and do we really need to read all the little, everyday details that fill up the Blackwell’s days? 

American Wife is a wonderful work of fiction, reportedly inspired by Laura Bush and the biographies, Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady by Ronald Kessler and The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush by Ann Gerhart.  The detail in the characters, plots and events are so rich that I felt like I was sitting down with a woman who had experienced more than most and she was willingly sharing stories about all of it.  My only regret is reading a newspaper review of this book at some point before reading it.  The critic pointed out Sittenfeld may have used Part 4 of American Wife to portray her own negative opinion of our 43rd President.  This became distracting as I read this last segment of a book that I was really enjoying.  Sometimes fiction is just fiction and you have to read it as it is and not look for hidden meanings left by the author. 

I have been reading the reviews and articles linked on Curits Sittenfeld’s website since finishing American Wife and was struck with one reviewers observation.  In her Article in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd says, “It’s the sort of novel Laura Bush might curl up with in the White House solarium if it were not about Laura Bush.  It would be interesting to hear how that lover of fiction feels about being the subject of fiction.” 

{ Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

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