Retro Review: American Wife

Editors Note: Retro Reviews are a new feature on That Worn Book Smell. It’s for books I read, but didn’t get around to reviewing right away. I could give you all the usual excuses–work, commuting, going the gym, having some semblance of a social life, netflix, etc.–but sometimes a review just doesn’t want to be written right away. So now I’ll have Retro Reviews for when I want to revisit a book from my past.

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CaptureWritten by Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of the enormously-popular novel Prep, American Wife is a fictionalized biography of Laura Bush’s life. As someone who had nothing more than a cursory knowledge of the first lady’s life, it was obvious Sittenfeld had drawn inspiration from her, but I had no idea just how much the line between fact and fiction had been blurred. The author really toes the line between Laura Bush’s real life and the imagined life of Alice Lindgren.

In some ways, my post-novel research (curiosity got the best of me) hindered how much I liked the book. It was too close to non-fiction, not enough of it felt authentic (though I suppose part of my problem is searching for authenticity in fiction–though I’ve often been able to find real, soul-crushing, life-leveling truths within the pages of the imagined). If I hadn’t googled and wikipedia-ed, I may have been able to like the book more–Alice’s experiences would have felt more her own instead of “Ripped from (Past) Headlines.”

The novel, which is broken up into 4 parts based on location, is fairly long though it doesn’t read that way. My version clocked in at 555 pages, but it could not have taken me more than 4 days to read. Even though I know I didn’t like the novel as a whole, complete book, it engrossed me and I could not stop reading.

Maybe what Sittenfeld does well is providing the fully-realized life of a character. We meet Alice as a child and stay with her until her early sixties. We see all her firsts; witness all her tragedies and triumphs; and get her at the most intimate moments of her life–the scenes of her describing the paper-mache literary sculptures are some of the quietest (and best) of the entire novel.

I liked Alice when she was growing up. She was smart, kind, empathetic, and a little judgmental (as a particularly illuminating plot involving her grandmother’s personal life reveals). She makes the mistakes that any normal teenager makes and then she makes a mistake that (thankfully) not many teenagers do–and that mistake changes her life forever. It’s a tragedy that completely sends Alice’s life completely off course. I won’t spoil it, but it was truly heartbreaking and I’m not sure if or how I would have recovered from it.

Maybe it was because I knew it was a fictionalized George W. Bush, but I didn’t care for Charlie as a character nor a romantic interest. He isn’t smart enough nor kind enough nor strong enough for Alice, who is independent and true to herself. Alice describes Charlie as “churlish,” “shallow,” “egotistical,” and a “dimwit”–all things a reader wants in a protagnist’s boyfriend (and future husband), right?

He, like his real-world counterpart was, is controlled and highly influenced by the people around him. Instead of doing what he is good at, he has bigger political goals and an irksome obsession with his “legacy.” From a powerful Midwestern political family (slightly tinged by Charlie’s father’s lost presidential race), Charlie is a man-child who wants to be the guy in charge. I just had such an utter lack of patience for his inflated ego and frat-boy ways.

Like I mentioned before, the novel is broken up into four parts and the first three work well. They are fully realized snapshots of Alice and Charlie’s lives (both separate and together), but the fourth and final falls flat. This chapter is what we have been building to–Charlie has become president against all odds and Alice, quiet, children’s librarian and liberal Alice, has become the first lady to a staunch Republican and arguably the most controversial President in history. And yet this is almost glossed over. It is by far the shortest and least interesting of the book.

We see Alice’s internal struggle of remaining faithful to her husband and his politics, but also to herself and her beliefs. There was so much that could (and should) have been explored and I felt almost cheated. Being in a relationship means existing as oneself and as part of a pair, and trying to balance those two selves is not always easy. Can you imagine if you were the wife of the President of the United States? It would mean publically supporting his policies, values, and morals while also not sacrificing yourself. These questions were posed then left unanswered and unexplored.

I liked American Wife, but I didn’t love it. The writing wasn’t that good, but something propelled me forward–maybe it was knowing that Charlie became president? Needing to know how Alice answered the above questions? It’s likely and it’s probably the reason I feel so uneasy about the book–what had excited me most is what let me down the most. Though, in a book about politics and politicians, it’s almost the perfect (unintentional) metaphor.

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