The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


‘American Wife’ pries into the former first lady’s private life

Alice Blackwell is Laura Bush.

In her timeliest novel yet, Curtis Sittenfeld delves into the lives of George and Laura Bush. “American Wife” is her fictionalized depiction of their relationship and marriage.

Sittenfeld takes the intimacy of a marriage and thrusts it onto the former president and first lady. Putting aside the public personas, Sittenfeld portrays the couple in their private lives.

We witness Alice and Charlie Blackwell’s most intimate moments – from sexual encounters to struggles with alcoholism. Some of Sittenfeld’s sex scenes are graphic – almost violent; but as she says in her interview with Time (reprinted at the end of the book), you can’t have a 30-year-old marriage without sex.

In the interview, Sittenfeld says that she modeled each of the four sections of the book on an event in Laura Bush’s life. But she says that the rest of the book is entirely made-up.

The story starts in rural Wisconsin, with the quiet, middle-class Alice Lindgren, the only child of a bank manager and a homemaker. Growing up, Alice lives with her parents and her liberal grandmother. At the age of 17, a tragic accident occurs that haunts Alice for the rest of her life.

Alice is on her way to a party when she runs a stop sign and collides into a fellow classmate’s car, resulting in a fatal crash – a plot twist that actually occurred in Laura Bush’s life.

After college, Alice becomes a librarian at an elementary school. It is during this time that she meets Charlie Blackwell, son of Wisconsin’s former governor, at a backyard barbecue. She isn’t interested at first, but the two end up marrying after a brief courtship. It is 1978 when Charlie runs for Congress, the year George W. Bush ran unsuccessfully for Congress. When Charlie does not win the election, Alice is secretly thrilled; this internal conflict is a motif that is carried throughout the novel.

Sittenfeld portrays Alice as a woman who follows her husband loyally. Alice distances her own political views and her own desires from the public persona she cultivates.

The only time she speaks out is while her husband struggles with alcoholism. After Charlie stops drinking and finds religion, Alice finds herself on a fast-paced political trajectory that doesn’t end until she reaches 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 

While Alice supports her husband’s accomplishments, his presidency is not something she ever wanted. In fact, the presidency is just a tiny piece of the novel. Sittenfeld chooses to focus more on the intricacies of a relationship. 

The book is not about politics. Instead, Sittenfeld creates a character that resembles the women in her other books, like her debut novels “Prep” and “Man of My Dreams.” In “Prep” for example, Sittenfeld’s protagonist is a quiet, naive 14-year-old middle-class girl who comes of age at a prestigious boarding school.

Similarly, Alice Lindgren is sweet, innocent and propelled to the White House from a humble background.

Sittenfeld has a great talent for capturing that feeling of not-quite-belonging; however, it’s slightly disappointing that the protagonist’s voice is so familiar, that Alice bears such a heavy resemblance to past characters.

Sittenfeld isn’t afraid to confront controversial subjects. The novel explores abortion, lesbianism and even drug use, yet Sittenfeld handles each sensitive subject with grace. Parts of the book that at first seem gossipy and crass are coated with a sophisticated sheen that makes them so much less scandalous.

As the pages turn, the scandal subsides and Alice’s character introspectively examines her rise into the public forum. The first lady has her own conflicts with her husband’s presidency, but she argues that there is nothing she can do about how he runs the country. And as for Alice’s reaction to the negative publicity her husband has received, she responds, “All I did was marry him … you are the ones who gave him power.”

While Sittenfeld’s latest leaves a familiar taste, her consistently sympathetic portrayal of the first lady is fascinating enough to make it through the five-hundred-page novel.

“American Wife,” published by Random House in September 2008, is available at bookstores for $15.

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