‘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.
Nice review. I am glad to hear that this one might be worthwhile. I picked it up because it sounded very interesting but quite a few less than stellar reviews have kept it from rising up the TBR pile.
Darn you Litlove! I hadn’t been interested in this book until now. You make it sound so intriguing. I always wondered how Laura, who seems like such a nice, realtively intelligent person (and a librarian!), could marry someone like George. Your questions about story and representation are marvelous and have my brain slowly perking up this morning 🙂
“It’s easier to read, I don’t doubt, if it is not the politics of your own country that you’re reading about.”
Maybe so. I’ve not read this for exactly that reason – I spent most of the last decade putting up with George W. Bush and his insane decisions, and I can’t bring myself to spend more time with (even a fictional version of) him.
This sounds like something I would like very much – especially so since I have a great deal of respect for Laura Bush (although I am a fairly non-political animal). I think I can understand why someone like Laura would be attracted to someone like W – sort of like Cathy and Heathcliffe. Although Cathy married Edgar Linton, which destroys the analogy completely, doesn’t it? Maybe George Bush morphs into Edgar Linton down the road? Anyway, good review, Litlove.
I also wouldn’t have considered reading this book if not for your review, Litlove. You ask so many good questions, I love to read your posts and then just think.
I have never really been interested in reading this book, but I know a lot of people who have read and enjoyed it. I’m glad it was such a provoking read for you! Maybe it’s one to check out…
Nicole – I read some of those reviews! And whilst I did feel in the middle it could have used an edit, I ended up thinking that the slow accumulation of detail was actually a part of the novel’s strengths. And the ending I liked a lot. But it asks some very awkward questions, and I can imagine they could upset some readers.
Stefanie – that is exactly the dilemma (or at least one of them) that the novel seeks to address! It does that bit very well, I thought, because on the face of it, it IS an odd union. It’s okay – we’re quite even, my friend, after I spent this morning noting down your best of 2009 titles! 🙂
Jenny – I understand and quite sympathise! And I can see how whether you liked Bush or loathed him, there’d be material to argue with in the novel. Best to find something altogether different. 🙂
Grad – lol! Loved the analogy. If you like Laura Bush, then I do think this novel holds possibilities for you – she is portrayed very sympathetically, and is definitely the intellectual and ethical conscience of that marriage. Would love to know what you think of it if you do read it!
Lilian – thank you for such a lovely comment! I took a while reading this, so had too much time to think about it! 🙂
Aarti – I was surprised to see what a mixed press it received, but I did enjoy it very much. But it could easily have been an emotive experience if it had been transposed to British politics, so, maybe it’s just easier to read this kind of thing when it doesn’t affect you quite so directly. If you do read it, I’d be very interested to hear what you think!
This review is just one of the many for which I feel compelled to pass on to you the “One Lovely Blog” award. You can grab the award image from my post at myshelfrunnethover.blogspot.com , if you are so inclined.
I look forward to reading more of your insightful reflections on reading.
I wonder how your reading experience would have been different if the characters were fictionalised versions of Tony and Cherie Blair. (Haven’t read Ghost but I think that’s a very different book in that it’s a thriller.) Anyway, lots to think about as always with your reviews, especially the bit about all the stories we tell ourselves being fiction to some degree.
I have to say that although I have wanted to read something by this author, this particular book has not been one I considered picking up until I read your post. I’m also always curious about why authors pick real people and then fictionalize their lives–and how much is reality and how much fiction. I guess more questions can be asked and answered or asked and answered differently anyway than in another format. And I think you’re right too about the reality/fiction of journalism–there’s always some truth about things but they are always tinged by the writer’s and maybe too the reader’s perceptions. I might have to look for this one after all!
Millefeuille – how very kind of you! Thank you so much! I’m completely delighted to receive your award – that’s such a lovely start to the year for me! 🙂
Pete – I have read Ghost in fact, but it felt very far removed from the Blairs somehow. Again, it’s not so easy for me to read American Wife and know how close a representation of the Bushes this is, but even with my limited knowledge, there was still a lot of factual stuff I could recognise. It’s interesting – I had sympathy for Charlie as a character, but I admit to having none for Bush. I guess the Charlie of the novel was an okay person, but certainly not someone who should ever have been President of the USA – and that was the light in which he was portrayed, which felt right and plausible. On a different note, I remain fascinated by the way stories shape us – stories are so strong in their shapes and structures. As soon as we start to tell of an experience, the story takes over and shapes the material, and a kind of conscious secondary revision takes place. It’s helpful in some ways, a hindrance in others. This comment will be as long as the post in a moment! I’ll stop now.
Danielle – what you say about being able to ask and answer questions is spot on, I think. Biography isn’t really allowed to ask questions, or to identify patterns, or to come to conclusions, and novels revel in all of that. But as soon as we make a story out of something, we’ve left reality behind. Journalists can be terrible at putting two and two together to make seventeen – or at least they are in this country! I really like Sittenfeld’s writing, but I’d probably advise you to start with Prep. If you like that, then the chances are good you’ll like this too. 🙂
I agree with others who have said that they weren’t considering reading this, but that you are tempting us! I liked Prep quite a bit, but I didn’t feel as though I wanted to read about the Bushes. But since she writes about them so well and so intelligently, it does seem worth a try. The story of Laura and George does seem like it’s ripe for a fictional exploration of their significance and it seems like a good story with which to think about stories and what they mean. But to spend so long thinking about George Bush! I don’t know 🙂
I’ve been thinking of reading American Wife for a long time, especially since I admired Sittenfeld’s earlier work Prep, which was also brutally realistic and class conscious. From reading your review, it does sound to me, at least, more based in fiction than reality, since I have my own, quite different (and incidentally, sympathetic), view of the Bushes. I’d be interested to read Sittenfeld’s insights, since I think she is quite astute, but I do think knowing who it is based on will be troubling to me as an American.
I won this book but haven’t yet been inspired to pick it up. I’ll have to write a note to remember to read this post again when I do finally decide to read it. (I also seem to have quite a few books with WIFE in the title and might make up a challenge?! sigh)
Dorothy – I know! I kept feeling sympathy for Charlie and then thinking, but hang on, isn’t this meant to be George Bush? And then, ouf, I didn’t quite know where to put myself in the story. 😉 It IS a good book, I think, but I have every sympathy with anyone who doesn’t want to read about their politicians!
Miriam – I really felt that while reading – that I had a privileged view on the story because of my political neutrality. Four-fifths of the novel takes place before the George Bush figure has made it into politics, which detracts from the potential for a heavily political message, but the last section is smack bang in the war, a topic about which I imagine most Americans will have distinct feelings. The start of the book is really good, though, as Sittenfeld is great at writing about adolescence. I would certainly go along with your description of Prep (which I enjoyed a lot).
Care – I’d love to know what you think of it if you do get around to reading it. And I do like the idea of a wife reading challenge – that would be quite fun as an offshoot of the women unbound challenge, perhaps. You’ve inspired me to look out for wives in my own reading! 🙂