By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House. 558 pp. $26
In January 2004, Curtis Sittenfeld had not yet published her first novel when she declared in an essay for Salon that she was a proud liberal who loathed George Bush but adored his wife.
"Much of the public frustration with Laura seems to stem from her perceived passivity, especially in light of widespread assumption that she's significantly more liberal than George Bush," she wrote. "But what, I asked the people I know, is she supposed to do?"
Four years later, Sittenfeld has answered her own question. Her third novel, American Wife, gives life to a first lady who resembles Laura Bush in so many ways -- from her modest only-child roots, to her car accident as a teenager that kills a popular classmate, to her rich, hell-raising husband who owns a baseball team before finding Jesus and becoming governor and then president -- that it's not hard to imagine partisan outrage in response. Many Republicans will deplore this roman à clef as an invasion of privacy, while a lot of Democrats will abhor the tender portrayal.
Detractors from both sides of the aisle might want to veer off message and actually read the book before lobbing grenades. This story isn't really about Laura Bush, although main character Alice Blackwell does share so many traits with the current first lady that the steamy sex scenes are bound to elicit a collective ewww. Never mind that. American Wife advances the notion that there is more to a president's wife than orchestrated public appearances. Still a radical notion in Washington, perhaps, but one that women around the country will welcome.
Sittenfeld offers a smart and sophisticated portrait of a high-profile political wife who takes the reins of a life she never wanted and holds on tight to who she wants to be, regardless of how the rest of the world perceives her. Take that, arctic mother-in-law. (Okay, some parallels here are just downright wicked.)
Alice is a school librarian, quietly liberal and plodding toward her 30s when Charlie Blackwell swaggers into her life. He is a legacy Republican, spoiled rotten by privilege but smarter than he acts. His aw-shucks charm tempts her to abandon her calm and stable ways even though the thought of dating him strikes her as "some combination of amusing and mildly irresponsible."
Marriage to Charlie is marriage to a dynasty, and Charlie is the dutiful dolt of a son. When she asks if his managerial job is full-time, he responds without hesitation: "Alice, here's an insight I'll give you into who I am. Being a Blackwell is my full-time job."
Whoo-boy. Run, Alice, run.
But she doesn't, and he does, and over time she is a willing, if reticent, prop to his political aspirations. Her humble roots are particularly advantageous. "The whiffs of East Coast Ivy League dynastic privilege that cling to Charlie -- I dispel them with my humble Wisconsin authenticity," says Alice, the stars in her eyes long eclipsed by the magnitude of her husband's ambition.
At its core, this is a story of marriage, any marriage, and the compromises that chip away at dreamy love to keep the union alive. Alice is not immune to the toll. In one scene, she simmers as Charlie shaves during an argument.
"I watched as he brought the razor down his right cheek, his mouth twisted to the left, and I felt such an intimate kind of anger. Was this what marriage was, the slow process of getting to know another individual far better than was advisable?"
The first three sections chronicle Alice's early life, from childhood through young marriage. She struggles with the discovery that her beloved grandmother is a lesbian. That same grandmother later arranges for a teenage Alice's abortion, and takes her granddaughter's secret to her grave. This brief synopsis suggests a lurch toward sensationalism, but the matter-of-fact narrative around these loaded issues is sensitive and helps to illustrate how Alice grows up to be more liberal than her husband.
In her 20s, Alice forfeits a chance to own a home to save her widowed mother from financial ruin. After several years of marriage and too many nights of worrying, Alice threatens to leave Charlie if he doesn't stop drinking. She is human. She is us.
Sittenfeld also nails the many peculiarities of political life, from frequent squirts of Purell on hand-shaken palms to Alice's realization that "I no longer know everyone I know." Fuzzy faces from her past show up on talk shows as experts about her life, and mere acquaintances feel entitled to ask personal favors of the president, each of them "unaware of the existence of every other person doing the same." (As the wife of Senator Sherrod Brown, I offer an appreciative nod to Sittenfeld's dead-on depictions of everyday political life.)
The final section, "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," is the least gratifying, though perhaps this is intentional. We must witness the whittling away of Alice's resolve, such as when she gives in to pressure from a Karl Rove-like character named Hank Ucker to get a facelift -- with her husband's blessing. And the smart first lady who fought to retain her own identity now considers the public perception that she is "a bit dull" to be a "minor victory."
Alice becomes less nuanced, too, as real history overtakes the fictional narrative. It's as if Sittenfeld suddenly decided to pile on the similarities so that no one doubted she was championing Laura Bush.
On election night in 2000, Alice and Charlie go to bed thinking he has lost the presidential race, but -- surprise! -- Florida turns for him. Terrorists attack in 2001, and Charlie takes America to war. The anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, whom George Bush refused to meet, is now an anti-war activist father whom Charlie won't meet. By the fall of 2006, Ucker's "supposed political sorcery faltered at last," and the Democrats take the majority in the House and the Senate.
The similarities between the lives of Alice Blackwater and Laura Bush are so numerous that they end up becoming distractions. Time and again, the reader is tempted to toss down the book and Google the details. That's too bad, really, because Sittenfeld has an astonishing gift for creating characters that take up residence in readers' heads. By the end of the novel, Laura Bush is less an inspiration than a crutch, and one that Sittenfeld simply doesn't need.
Then again, would this story carry as much punch if we didn't think that maybe, just maybe, this is how Laura Bush really feels? There is that moment, after all, toward the end when she's riding alone in the back seat of the motorcade, headed back to the White House. Peering out the window, Alice silently chastises the citizens along the road: "All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him the power." ·
Connie Schultz is a columnist for the Plain Dealer/Creators Syndicate and the author, most recently, of ". . . and His Lovely Wife."