I liked Curtis Sittenfeld’s first two novels, Prep and The Man of My Dreams, but I put off reading American Wife, which came out in 2008, because it was based on the life of Laura Bush. Advance notices made the novel sound like a politically motivated invasion of privacy that created a scandalous life for Laura Bush whom I believe — famous or not — has a right to her privacy. Plus, gossip is unpleasant when it’s about someone who seems genuinely nice, as Laura Bush seemed to be. Some critics of the novel also griped that the author was taking advantage of Laura Bush’s celebrity to sell books, the book’s release was timed for the Republican National Convention, etc.
But the Random House audiobook narrator, Kimberly Farr, makes the voice of First Lady Alice Blackwell so compelling that I forgot much of the time that the character was based on Curtis Sittenfeld’s imagining what it might be like to go — like Laura Bush — from a 31-year-old unmarried, school librarian to governor’s wife and then president’s wife. If I were Laura Bush, I would be very angry about an author appropriating my life, even just the skeletal outline of it. If I were the Alice Blackwell of the book, a thoughtful, smart, self-relective, and unassuming reader of fiction, I would still be angry, but also pleased that — instead of a cardboard cutout of a celebrity in a political novel — I am represented by a complex, nuanced portrait of a woman who loves her husband (though not his politics) who keeps her ambivalence mainly to herself. (To my knowledge, Laura Bush has never made a public statement about the novel, nor does she mention it in her memoir, Spoken from the Heart, published last May.
Written in the voice of Alice Blackwell, American Wife (as the author points out in a Salon interview) has a main character whose personality is very different from the sarcastic, judgmental narrators of Prep and The Man of My Dreams (both of whom are practically crippled from self-conscious anxiety) but Alice Blackwell does consider many of her actions and non-actions, her decisions and emotions, long and hard in the novel (Good? Bad? Forgivable? Unforgivable?), never coming down fully on one side or the other.
Read a Joyce Carol Oates’ essay on Curtis Sittenfeld’s work from The New York Times.
Read a review from the “Everyday I Write the Book” blogger, who liked the book, but not the audio version.
Check the Old Colony Library Network catalog for availability of American Wife.