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}

For more about Curtis Sittenfeld and American Wife, be sure to check out http://curtissittenfeld.com/.

Book Review ~ The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

Summary ~ The Little Giant of Aberdeen CountyFrom Publishers Weekly~Starred Review.  Baker’s bangup debut mixes the exuberant eccentricities of John Irving’s Garp, Anne Tyler’s relationship savvy and the plangent voice of Margaret Atwood. In an upstate New York backwater, Truly, massive from birth, has a bleak existence with her depressed father and her china-doll–like sister, Serena Jane. Truly grows at an astonishing rate—her girth the result of a pituitary gland problem—and after her father dies when Truly is 12, Truly is sloughed off to the Dyersons, a hapless farming family. Her outsize kindness surfaces as she befriends the Dyersons’ outcast daughter, Amelia, and later leaves her beloved Dyerson farm to take care of Serena Jane’s husband and son after Serena Jane leaves them. Haunting the margins of Truly’s story is that of Tabitha Dyerson, a rumored witch whose secrets afford a breathtaking role reversal for Truly. It’s got all the earmarks of a hit—infectious and lovable narrator, a dash of magic, an impressive sweep and a heartrending but not treacly family drama. It’ll be a shame if this doesn’t race up the bestseller lists.

What an absolutely enthralling, exciting, depressing, uplifting, tear inducing, story-telling book we have in Tiffany Baker’s debut novel, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County.  Truly Plaice is a larger than life character in every sense of the phrase.  She is physically enormous and continues to grow and grow but not only in body but in character, soul and heart.  Truly is not dealt the best hand in life.  Her birth ends her mother’s life (she was huge from the beginning) and when her father passes away and leaves her sister Serena Jane and Truly at the hands of townspeople, the two are forever separated from each other.  They were separated from each other from the very beginning of life though.  Where Truly is large, sturdy, loyal and ugly (on the outside), Serena Jane is petite, beautiful, fragile, flighty and interested in helping herself and not others. 

Truly’s story takes us through her life and there we meet the people who imprint themselves on her soul and in our minds forever.  The doctor/brother-in-law who torments Truly his whole days through and is the most evil character I’ve read in a long while.  The boy who stole Truly’sheart through letters while he was in the jungles of Southeast Asia, fighting for our country.  The teacher who was the first to call Truly by the name she feared to hear the most at a young age; Giant.  The pseudo-sister she finds in Amelia and Amelia’s family who took Truly in when she had no where else to go, and taught her to take life’s punches as they come but to watch out for yourself at all times.  The story that comes about through the relationships that Truly has with these folks is one I won’t soon forget. 

In The Little Giant of Aberdeen County there are representatives of good and evil and then there are moments of grey that can’t be placed in a specific category.  Tiffany Baker has an All-American story that will no doubt hold your attention and imagination past the last page. 

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

You can also check out The Washington Post’s review of The Little Giant of Aberdeen County HERE.