‘American Wife is a work of fiction loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady’ Curtis Sittenfeld writes at the start of the novel and, being both curious and English I had to look up online to find out which first lady was in question. When I found out that this was a novel based on the lives of George W. and Laura Bush, I was only more intrigued. The question that came straight into my mind was: why choose to fictionalize the lives of people still living? What would fiction bring to the story that biography could not? All of which led inexorably to the basic question: what do stories do for us?
The first thing stories do is give shapeliness and form to what might look random and chaotic. This is a long, long book of unobtrusive realism, Sittenfelt’s narrative voice managing to become almost transparent to the events it recounts. It’s packed full of detail and gives the reader the impression of almost total immersion in a highly recognizable world. But it does compartmentalize and demarcate – the story is split into four parts, each focusing on a different location, each telling the tale of a turning point in the lives of the Bushes. As far as I know, three of these are based in actuality – the tragedy that shaped Laura Bush’s early life (or Alice Blackwell, as she is known in the novel), the way that Laura and George met and married, and Laura’s insistence that he deal with his drinking problem. The key event of the final section, based in the Iraq war, is fictional, I think, (even if the context in which it occurs is resolutely real) which seems to indicate that this is the crux of the book’s vision, the moment of fictional truth, rather than plain old indeterminate experiential truth. What it means, I’ll come back to later on.
What are we readers being set up for? The majority of the novel focuses on making Alice Blackwell (Laura Bush) a profoundly sympathetic character. Alice is one of life’s good girls, coming from a decent middle-class background of extreme politeness. The only disparate element in her upbringing is her novel-loving, chain-smoking, lesbian grandmother who lives with them. Her sharp eye and wider sensibility will turn out to be very useful to Alice in her troubles, even if her unconventionality is something the uptight teenage Alice will find hard to accept. After the tragedy that blights her youth (no spoilers though you might know already), Alice settles down to life as a single librarian in small town America, a position she might have kept for life if not for a chance meeting with rich playboy, Charlie Blackwell. One of the novels greatest strengths is its brilliant depiction of class difference, and Charlie’s family is a flawless representation of WASP life. Alice is taken on a trip to their holiday home, almost a small resort shared between five wealthy families. Everything is worn, used, ugly in its decaying grandeur, where seventeen people share one bathroom, but a staff caters for the meals in a shared dining hall. Charlie Blackwell’s mother, Priscilla, is a creation of sheer monstrousness: unapologetically racist, authoritarian, contemptuous of all that falls beyond her ideological remit, whilst his father is charming and benign. Alice will come to learn that their real home is a spick and span mansion, and that slumming it is a delightful choice they make when on vacation. The way that Alice adapts to her new social class is beautifully conceived and written, an impressive combination of moral integrity and social flexibility.
At the heart of the novel is an exploration of a superficially incomprehensible marriage. Why does Alice marry someone as childish and unskilled as Charlie? ‘A thirty-one year old wastrel’, as his mother describes him, a ‘booze-hound’. But Charlie’s vibrant personality, his genuinely easy-going nature, and his inability to be bothered about the kind of endless fretful worries that Alice’s polite and responsible nature subject her to, make him a fine counterpart, and a necessary balance. Alice realizes (although she doesn’t like to admit it to herself) that she provides Charlie with moral ballast. If she has married him, then she must have seen more in him than aimless ambition and an inability to take anything seriously. As a portrait of a marriage, this is again highly convincing and delicately done. Charlie is, I think, the best (written) character in the novel, his speech being a particular delight, his charms and his idiocies evocatively described.
But this is also the point at which reality began to intrude for me. Am I supposed to read this character as George W. Bush? Is this the real life George being recreated in a sympathetic light on the pages of the narrative? After all, it is impossible NOT to think that we are being given a special perspective into the character of Laura Bush. Which brings me back to the use of stories. Representation, the art of transferring reality to the page, means re-presenting the real in its uncanny fictional form, in a way that makes it easy for us to forget we are reading black and white markings on a sheet of woodchip and not in fact looking through a hidden window onto the world. Fiction messes with the distinction between fantasy and reality, blurring the boundaries – until we come to read about what is obviously reality but processed through a creative lens. Then that distinction hovers uneasily around the margins of the page, prodding us uncomfortably into wondering where stories begin and end. Is this novelistic version of the Bushes any less fictional than journalistic reports? Than the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves? This question seems even stranger in a work of seamless realism, the spectres of George and Laura drifting with real perplexity around and behind the reading experience.
Representation also has a second meaning – the political definition of the one who stands in for, stands up for, a whole group of others. In entitling the novel, American Wife, we have to wonder whether Alice Blackwell stands for all American wives, whether the first lady simply stands at the head of a lengthy queue with all the other ladies lining up behind her. Alice is gentle, passive, thoughtful. She thinks a great deal about what is right and correct, she supports her man at all times, and she bends herself more than a little out of shape in order to defer to her partner’s wishes. By the end of the novel (and in fact in the preface where the novel begins), she is wracked with doubt about the wisdom of her married policy of non-intervention. Should she have done more? Should she have spoken out? Her final actions, which spring from her deepest convictions, work to undermine her husband, her marriage and potentially the direction of the war. What would have been the genuinely right thing to do?
All the reviews I read, all of which featured in American publications, did not like the ending, but I found it fascinating. It’s easier to read, I don’t doubt, if it is not the politics of your own country that you’re reading about. But here the questions of fictional representation as well as those of what it is to be a good person, come together. Alice is forced to ponder the problem of personal responsibility, when a person unexpectedly ends up in a position of immense power, a position she has never solicited and for which no one is properly qualified. And we as readers have to wonder to what extent this is an apology for the Bush family and to what extent a condemnation of them, to what extent it celebrates American culture and to what extent it sharply critiques its underlying contradictions. The narrative is beautifully poised between these oppositions.
Altogether, I thought this was an excellent book, a deep, engrossing read, that adds layer upon layer of characterization to what could have been two stereotypical positions, raising provocative questions about class, responsibility and the ingredients for a successful marriage. Well worth a try, I’d say.