Weirded out by American Wife

I’m not quite halfway through listening to Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife and I’m enjoying it immensely, but I’m also finding it to be a really odd emotional experience. I’m enjoying it so much I’m tempted to get the audiobook out of the car and listen to it in the house, which is something I never, ever do. I’m caught up in Alice Lindgren’s voice, her thoughtful, careful, smart way of thinking about everything that happens to her.

The weird emotional experience part began when Alice met Charlie Blackwell, whom she has not yet married, but has become engaged to. Remember how this is the book that’s really about Laura Bush, even though the names and some of the circumstances are changed? That makes Charlie Blackwell George Bush, although his family is from Wisconsin, not from Texas. And reading about Charlie Blackwell/George Bush as a romantic lead has been bizarre.

It’s probably no surprise that I’m anything but a George Bush fan — I can’t stand the man, in fact. And yet in the context of this book, he’s … well, obnoxious quite a lot, but also sometimes charming. And every time I think he does something even a little bit charming, I have this moment where I think, ew! That’s George Bush! Ew! He’s awful, not charming in the least!

And yet in the context of the book, it makes sense that Alice is attracted to him. He is a lot of things that she is not — outgoing, confident, determined, at ease with people — and they make a good pair in some ways. And I like Alice a lot. In fact, she is in some ways kind of like me, or at least I feel some kinship with her. Her way of thinking and acting is familiar to me. But … she married George Bush! Ew!

There are lots of moments where Charlie/George does something utterly obnoxious such as order Alice around, get mad at her if she isn’t politically supportive enough, or assume she’s going to drop her career for his sake, and then I have fun getting annoyed and yelling at him for being the jerk that he is. But then they make up, and I understand that Alice is happy once again, and that’s a good thing, because I like Alice, but it means she’s happy with George Bush. Ick! And then there are the sex scenes, which are the weirdest of all …

This book has been an interesting imaginative exercise, as it makes me think about how someone I like could be attracted to someone I most definitely don’t, and how the person I most definitely don’t like can sometimes be likable. And also how a sometimes likable person is capable of doing awful things, like start the Iraq war. I’m very curious to see what Sittenfeld does with the rest of the story; the couple isn’t even married yet and the presidency is way off in the future.

18 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

18 responses to “Weirded out by American Wife

  1. All those reactions and connections are fascinating, and I’d guess the author wrestled with much the same things. Maybe in the first draft, Charlie was totally unlikable and only did awful things and Sittenfeld said to himself, surely no woman would fall for that cretin–there must have been more to it. Anyway that’s what I imagine because it would probably happen to me that way.

  2. Sittenfeld must be awesome at character development, to elicit such a varied reaction scene by scene…one moment you don’t like Charlie, then you can. I aspire to that kind of writing myself, and wish that more authors I read could do that too. What a roller coaster ride!

  3. I really liked, possibly even loved, this book and it definitely made me reconsider how I viewed the Bushes, giving me far more sympathy for George W. the man (not the President though). And Alice/Laura was a fantastic character. Hope you enjoy the rest of the book!

  4. Thought about reading this book for the cathartic possibilities alone, and I think you just pushed me a little further in that thinking. We seem to have the same feelings about W. Don’t know about the sex scenes though. Feel like I need to Windex my mind after only quickly thinking about it. :)

  5. Fascinating! I didn’t know that the book was based on the Bushes. I imagine my reactions might be similar if I read it.

  6. Lilian — it’s fascinating to think about what the author must have gone through. She’s pulled off quite a feat, I think, dealing with the many, many reactions people have to GWB. It seems that trying to capture him in a way that feels real would be really, really difficult.

    Debby — I think she is really great at character development. I really liked her earlier book Prep, and it’s one you might enjoy too (about a teenage girl feeling out of place at boarding school). Yes, a roller coaster ride indeed!

    Claire — thank you! It’s really hard to separate the person from the President, and to separate the younger person from the older person who has become president. I’m very curious to see how Sittenfeld will handle it all.

    Frances — oh, I know about the Windex, and yes, you will definitely want to clean out your brain after the sex scenes. They are fairly plentiful too. It’s such a fascinating book, though — I think it’s worth it, and at least we don’t have to hear W. giving presidential speeches anymore.

    Marieke — knowing that it’s about the Bushes makes all the difference, right? Yes, its definitely fascinating.

  7. Okay, after reading Prep (well, actually, listening to it), I did not think I wanted to read any more Sittenfeld. You are beginning to change my mind, though. I can see myself having very similar reactions to George Bush as a romantic “hero.” Then again, I am always fascinated by the women who get involved with such despicable men. It does make for a very interesting story and great opportunity for character development, if done right.

  8. This sounds like a very ‘life is full of gray areas’ sort of book! I had no desire to read it until Litlove wrote about it, and now you are and you’re making me want to read it, too. I think if this was just a completely fictional story (well, it is, but it isn’t), I would be more apt to want to read it, but the ‘ick’ factor is what’s keeping me away. I’ve been considering revising my first impression. She’s (Sittenfeld) obviously doing something very right with this one!

  9. Oh my Dorothy, I am sitting here laughing as I can imagine my reactions might be quite similar to yours. I hadn’t ever thought I might read the book because I don’t like the Bushes and I just can’t manage to be sympathetic to Laura. But perhaps the book might help me see her differently. She is/ was a librarian after all. And after Litlove’s glowing review and now you liking the book so much, I think I’ll have to consider it.

  10. Interesting response to this book (about which I otherwise know nothing). It’s also perhaps worth noting that, however much we may find them odious, certain figures are almost necessarily “charming” to other people, for a variety of reasons. (Recall all the accounts of Hitler’s personal charisma. The idea of it seems completely anathema to us, but it was experienced as real by many people, not only lunatics and racists.) Those of us on the left would do well to remember that, I think.

  11. The mother of a friend of mine is actually close friends with Laura Bush (and I feel the same way about the Bushes that you do, as does my friend AND her mom). Apparently Laura was liberal in college, where this friend knew her, and then, needless to say, their lives diverged dramatically but they remained in touch. My friend’s mom went to the White House multiple times when Bush was in office, met Karl Rove, the whole nine yards, even though she is obviously a liberal hippie who lives off the grid on a mountainside in Colorado. CRAZY! Anyway, I imagine her emotions about the whole thing are much like yours at reading this book, except that she actually has to interact with the dude in real time. Can you imagine? It makes me shudder just to think about.

  12. Emily, your story reminds me that my wife’s step-father’s brother-in-law is a personal friend of Dick Cheney (college roommates, I believe), and his son interned for Cheney. Presumably he doesn’t think Cheney is pure evil like we do. And he himself (the brother-in-law) is a nice guy, always very engaging and pleasant. Life is weird like that.

  13. I am so glad you are enjoying this – I had EXACTLY the same reaction to the story. How can I possibly be finding George/Charlie funny? It spooks a person.

  14. Writers are so good at messing up constructed opinions and making one other version of the world look so convincing. Reading here and at litlove I wonder what the intention behind protraying Bush as both charming and awful is, is it to vindicate Laura Bush’s involvement in his politics do you think, or something else?

  15. I’ll be curious to hear what you thought of it in the end. I reviewed this one in 2008. (I don’t want to say anything more until you’re done reading it!)

  16. These thoughts and reactions about the book are some of the best I’ve read. I can’t wait to read your review!

  17. I have to say I laughed while reading this. It’s still sitting on my bookshelf and I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. Maybe I will now!

  18. Emily B. — well, I liked Prep a lot, so if we disagree about that one, we might disagree about this one too. But I’m really liking it a lot (I’m maybe 2/3 of the way through), and I think she gets the character development stuff down really well. The Laura Bush figure is really fascinating.

    Danielle — it’s the nonfiction element to it that has fascinated me so much. I think I’d like it even if it weren’t based on real people, but that makes it even more interesting. It’s definitely full of grey areas — in fact, Sittenfeld goes to great lengths to explore those grey areas, which is something I like about the book a lot.

    Stefanie — oh, I’d love to hear what you think of this book! I think you’d be hard pressed to keep disliking Laura Bush. She’s such a reader in this book (Sittenfeld regularly mentions the books she reads — Updike, Welty, others I can’t remember), and she’s a great librarian. I think you should consider it, just for the challenge!

    Richard — good point. Charm does not equal a good character or leadership abilities, or anything else, except charm itself. The Alice/Laura Bush character explores that idea a bit; she thinks about how we fool ourselves into thinking that because someone is kind to us, they are kind in general. Not true!

    Emily — interesting! In the book Laura’s fairly liberal as well (not super-liberal, but with leanings that way), and she and George/Charlie have some conflicts about it. How interesting to know someone with that relationship to Laura — I really wonder what she thought of the book!

    Litlove — Yes, it’s really disorienting! I think I have someone figured out, but maybe I don’t. Or I think I have myself figured out …

    Jodie — I don’t think she’s trying to vindicate Laura so much as explore how someone like Laura could end up with someone like George, and what it must have been like to make the compromises and changes necessary along the way. She and Charlie/George have such a whirlwind romance, Laura/Alice has no real idea what she is getting herself into, and can only adapt to it later.

    avisannschild — I’ll look up your review when I’m finished — thanks! I’m about 2/3 of the way through. I’m not driving a whole lot these days, so my progress is slow (and it’s a long book).

    Maire — Thanks! I’m still enjoying the book a lot. It’s certainly making me think!

    Mary-Frances — oh, it’s been such a pleasure, really! I do recommend reading it :)

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