I didn’t expect to love Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife as much as I did. I liked her first book Prep quite a lot, so I know she’s an author whose sensibility speaks to me, but I thought this book was even better than the previous one. Now, I listened to this on audio, and I tend to like books I listen to more readily than those I read, so I’m not sure how reliable my response is, exactly, but still, I spent several weeks looking forward to the time when I could get in the car to listen to a little bit more of the story.
As I wrote about here, reading this book was an odd experience because I never expected to enjoy being in the company of characters who are modeled on George and Laura Bush. But, while the George character was often irritating (though not as much as I would have expected, given how I feel about the real-life person), Alice, the one modeled on Laura, was a fascinating person whom I came to admire.
Alice is a first-person narrator, and she tells her life story up until about 1 1/2 years from the end of Charlie’s (George’s) second term as president. I was talking to a friend recently about how knowing the trajectory a novel will follow — that we will move from Alice’s childhood up through the time she becomes first lady — can get dull, but in this case it wasn’t. As soon as she met Charlie, I knew who he was and that she would marry him, and, of course, I knew that he would be politically successful beyond her wildest dreams. But the story of their journey to the White House was enthralling the entire way, all because of Alice’s thoughtful, careful, measured, and balanced voice. That description doesn’t sound enthralling, I know, but when extraordinary things happen to someone who thinks and talks kind of like I do and whom I feel I could be friends with, I’m drawn in.
The first extraordinary thing that happens to Alice is something tragic: at 17, while driving to a party, she ran a stop sign and hit a car driven by a high school classmate, Andrew Imhof, with whom she was just beginning to realize she couldpossibly fall in love. This tragedy follows her for the rest of her life, not just because she was responsible for someone else’s death, but because she could never know whether their relationship would have blossomed into romance, had he lived. What, she thinks later, if she and Andrew had married and she had become a farmer’s wife? She may never have met Charlie in that case, much less married him and become the first lady.
But marrying Andrew is not what happened, and instead when Alice meets Charlie, the two fall for each other hard. They are engaged in six weeks and married in a few months. In so many ways, Charlie is perfect for Alice — he is funny and gregarious and light-hearted, to balance out her seriousness and thoughtfulness. He is confident and carefree, to balance her worried and insecure nature. She makes him a little more serious, while he helps her loosen up. Their differing traits attract them to each other, but, not surprisingly, they become a source of conflict over time, and eventually Alice comes to question the choice she made.
Or was it even a choice? There is a sense in which Alice was pulled into that relationship by forces beyond her knowledge, or perhaps it was her unconscious that led her there. At any rate, she thinks deeply about why she did what she did, and why people do what they do, and the extent to which any of us have any real say in the course of our lives.
These questions become even more urgent when she finds herself as First Lady and wife of a husband who has taken the country to war, in highly questionable circumstances. How in the world did she end up there? And what is she supposed to do now? What are her responsibilities, given that she’s not entirely sure that the war is right — or that it is wrong? And what exactly does she owe her husband’s administration? Should she hide her true feelings if they conflict with administration talking points?
American Wife covers a lot of ground, moving from small-town middle-class Wisconsin to the upper-class Wisconsin sanctuaries where Charlie’s family resides (Sittenfeld changed some key details — I don’t know how many, in fact, and it would be interesting to know), to the campaign trail, to the Governor’s mansion, to the White House. The wonder of it, to Alice, is that she is the same person through it all. How does an average middle-class midwestern woman who never in her wildest dreams would have thought she could become as powerful and famous as she became end up where she did? This question never ceases to puzzle Alice, and I loved the book’s implication that this is only an extreme version of the question that plagues us all. How in the world did any of us end up in the places we did?