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?
Much like the protagonists of her novels American Wife and Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld, and her writing, are interesting, though interesting in a very quiet way. On the surface her work is unassuming: a charming combination of chick-lit and literary fiction. But after finishing American Wife I believe her work is more complicated than it initially appears. Sittenfeld doesn’t commit to telling the most thrilling story but she does commit to respectfully recording the mundane events of a mundane person’s mundane daily life—and as a result, she shows that no one’s life is truly mundane.
I have so much love for this unshowy style. So often I feel deafened by how loud people are yelling to get their voices heard in today’s world. But I can count on Sittenfeld for small but poignant renderings of unremarkable girls’ daily lives. Unfortunately in American Wife, she loses the essence of her story. Instead of always magnifying on Alice, the unabashedly normal Midwestern girl who will remarkably become First Lady of the United States, the story focuses too much on Charlie, her husband and future Leader of the Free World. This broader scope weakens the novel because sometimes it doesn’t feel like Alice’s story but merely a story in which she plays a large role.
Alice’s character is based on Laura Bush (indeed, my post-reading Wikipedia research shows that Ms. Bush inspired this novel a lot); thus her husband is modeled on the infamous George W. Bush. Unfortunately, it follows the Bush saga too closely. I would have preferred a simple fictional vivisection of First Lady life because the similarities to real life were eerie and distracting. It was impossible to view the characters as merely fictional creatures; I kept seeing Alice as Alice-cum-Laura Bush and Charlie as Charlie-cum-Mr. President-George W. Bush.
Like her debut novel Prep, American Wife is a lesson in passivity. It’s a very feminist book without proclaiming itself as such, suggesting that the people who might best lead a country—in this case, women: whose inferior position has taught them compassion—will never run a campaign for that very reason. We also see, again, how being white, rich and male in America can grant you your every wish. Conversely we see how fundamentally unfair it is to be a wife. A wife compromises herself for love; she repeatedly bends her wishes to accommodate her husband. The opposite is never true, however.
But most of all, Sittenfeld teaches us to respect complexity. Contradictions—within a country, within a family, within ourselves—are inevitable. In her quiet way, she doesn’t advocate a solution to these contradictions. She doesn’t take a position. She simply points her finger towards mundanely complex things we see everyday and never notice. How wonderful it is to notice them.