Curtis Sittenfeld fascinates me. American Wife is the third book of hers I’ve read and each one is like a snowflake: completely original and beautifully rendered. For the week I read this one, American Wife was more to me than just a book; it was a companion. The more time I spent with it, the more I didn’t ever want to let it go.
American Wife is a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush, the 43rd First Lady of the United States. Many details are altered and imagined, including the name of the protagonist, which Sittenfeld changed to Alice Blackwell, née Lindgren. The story begins in Alice’s early years and tracks her life up until the middle of her husband’s presidency. By the end of the novel you know Alice so well, she feels more like a friend than a character from someone else’s imagination.
Like any interesting life, Alice’s is fraught with highs and lows, tensions and complications, and Sittenfeld does not shy away from any of it. She mines Alice’s life of all its awkwardness and intricacies, finding the sticky parts and delving in head-first. As a young school librarian with a heartbreaking past, Alice has a small but meaningful life, dedicated to education. She is reserved and kind, a registered Democrat, and a bit put off by politics. But when she meets Charlie Blackwell, her personal and political inverse, she unexpectedly falls in love. As Charlie rises in the Republican party, Alice must navigate a life of contradiction.
I love books that weave seemingly unrelated plot lines together for a big meaningful reveal at the end, but this book was different and just as satisfying. A fictional autobiography, American Wife unfolds organically and almost meanderingly, but each tangent of Alice’s history has a real effect on her character and influence on her future. Sittenfeld has created a deft, fascinating perspective on a life split between love and conscience.
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