11 August 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Flap Copy: "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 believes, "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. Alice candidly describes her modest upbringing and the tragedy that shaped her identity; she recalls her early adulthood as a librarian, and her surprising courtship with the man who swept her off her feet; she tells of the crisis that almost ended their marriage; and she confides the privileges and difficulties of being first lady, a role that is uniquely cloistered yet public, secretive yet exposed.

As her husband's presidency enters its second term, Alice finds herself increasingly conflicted. Ultimately she must confront contradictions years in the making and face questions nearly impossible to answer."

Curtis Sittenfeld's novel, loosely based on the life of Laura Bush but clearly more full of fiction than reality, was interesting and frustrating at the same time. Divided into four parts that represent the major periods in Alice's life, the book explores a coming-of-age in Riley, Wisconsin, the steady life of a public school librarian, the early days of married life and then finally the mystique of the White House. The first parts of the book were definitely more engaging and better written - by the time we hit the grat denouement, I was so tired of Alice and Charlie that I couldn't have cared less.

My biggest frustration came from the face that Alice is a study in contradictions, some too implausible for me to bear. She's a well-read, intelligent woman who makes every effort never to speak for herself. She is actively passive, always holding back, soothing ruffled feathers and letting her own thoughts and needs fall by the wayside. She is a liberal Democrat who marries into a staunchly Republican family and somehow supports her husband's political ambitions.

As a complex look at marriage, loyalty, responsibility and choice, Sittenfeld's third novel succeeds and even shines. But as a story that should engage and question the reader, the book falls a bit short. Still worth the read though, if only for the voyeuristic thrill of a novel that may contain just a bit of truth!

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