September 25, 2008

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American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld (2008, Random House, 558 pages)

What do you know about Laura Bush?

It occurred to me as I read this book that I know very little about her — there’s the bare bones bio of her life and the fact that she tends to smile that vague politician’s wife smile when her husband speaks. I think that when I watch first ladies and other politician’s wives (and it is just wives; I don’t think I’ve seen enough politician’s husbands to have any generalized impressions of what they do) make this expression, I get the sense, without really thinking about it, that they are proudly listening to their husbands and agreeing.

This is, of course, absurd. I don’t know anybody in real life who always listens to their spouse and totally agrees with them for even half of what they say, much less for an entire speech’s worth of statements. I’m sure one of the skills you develop as a political spouse is the ability to look like you’re thinking “that’s right, honey” even when you’re really thinking “that joke again?” or “yeah, that’s pretty big talk from someone who can’t make a bed.”

American Wife speculates on that inner life — on the woman beneath the mild smile, or really, on the woman that smiling symbol was before she became the first lady. This is not necessarily the story of Laura Bush; as Sittenfeld says at the beginning, “American Wife is a work of fiction loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady.” And get beyond the juicy idea that this is a look into the head of such a public but guarded woman, and you’ll see that the book is really less about Laura Bush specifically and more a rumination on marriage, specifically marriages that become public marriages. Bush, and Alice Blackwell, the book’s stand-in for her, are at the tail end of the generation where political wives were, professionally, political wives. Now these wives often spend more of their marriages in their own career — that is, until the husbands do something like run for president. I don’t know that the choices for women married to powerful men whose careers suddenly shoot into the stratosphere will noticeably change over the next few years. It’s likely that hubby’s presidential bid will still mean wifey puts the job on hold. But how a young boomer or a Gen-Xer will view this situation won’t be clear. I can see some future first lady (or maybe even past first lady, in the case of Hillary Clinton, or maybe immediate-future first lady, should it turn out to be Michelle Obama) feeling conflicted, resentful, guilty and frustrated — feelings that, come to think of it, aren’t all that different from most women’s feelings about their work-life balance.

You might not know Laura Bush but you know the basics of the plot here: Alice Lindgren grows up in a small town (in this case, in Wisconsin) as an only child who is quiet and a voracious reader. She’s in a car accident as a teenager that results in the death of a classmate (in this case a boy on whom she had long had a crush). She lives a quiet life as a young woman — dating only a few men as she moves from being a teacher to a school librarian. When she meets Charlie Blackwell, the son of the state’s governor, she falls in love, despite being calm where he is boisterous and determined where he seems aimless. He floats through his 30s without much success in life until a crisis in their marriage leads him to quit drinking, find God and eventually run for governor and president.

What gives this book its readability (in fact, its devour-ability) is the inner turmoil of this outwardly placid woman. Actually, turmoil is too harsh a word — it’s more like constant inner reevaluation. Alice is not someone who is filled with angst or someone who acts rashly. It’s her thoughtfulness, her politeness in difficulty that makes her a fascinating character. In the sitcom version of this story, Alice would roll her eyes at Charlie and crack a joke at his expense. She’d hole up on the couch with ice cream and Kleenex when she felt sad or angry. But here, she doesn’t. She says things in a firm but quiet manner; she keeps her opinions about Charlie mostly to herself (so much to herself, for example, that all you can picture seeing on her face is that blank smile).

What might be going on in the spaces of Laura Bush’s life that we don’t see? That’s the question this book asks. Alice Blackwell and her modern thoughts crammed into an old-fashioned role is the Curtis Sittenfeld’s answer. That she’s a guesstimate about a real person is what makes Alice’s story initially interesting. That her character is appealing and that the questions her life raises are so fascinating (at least to me, a woman constantly considering the work-life balance thing herself) are what make the book’s 558 pages reasonably easy to move through. Alice (and maybe even Laura Bush) doesn’t break the mold, doesn’t strike a new path, but then neither will most of us. It’s how she follows the old one that keeps you reading her story. B
— Amy Diaz