“American Wife” = Laura Bush?

Photo Courtesy Random House

Ashley Goetz

Photo Courtesy Random House

âÄúAMERICAN WIFEâÄù Author: Curtis Sittenfeld Publisher: Random House Pages: 555 Price: $26.00 âÄúAmerican WifeâÄôsâÄù protagonist Alice Blackwell is the picture of composure. SheâÄôs docile, well-mannered and admired by many. She grew up in a small town, suffered a horrible accident, and later pursued a career as a librarian with a passion for childrenâÄôs literacy. She also happens to be first lady, married to the effervescent Republican president Charlie Blackwell. Sound familiar, perhaps a bit like the life story of a current first lady by the name of Laura Bush? The similarities donâÄôt end there in âÄúAmerican Wife,âÄù the third novel from âÄúPrepâÄù author Curtis Sittenfeld. (Sittenfeld is a woman; donâÄôt let her masculine first name sway you.) When we first meet Alice Lindgren, she is a little girl in a tiny Wisconsin town. She grows up sheltered, quiet and polite, living a simple (Democratic) life until she meets Charlie, privileged son of a super-wealthy (Republican) family dynasty. They marry, raise a daughter and suffer some speed bumps (CharlieâÄôs alcoholism, his born-again Christianity, the fact that Alice refuses to vote Republican despite her husbandâÄôs governorship, then presidency) along the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Throughout the book, Alice struggles with a variety of moral and political dilemmas. Her husbandâÄôs possible appointment of a staunchly Catholic, pro-life Supreme Court justice brings out AliceâÄôs own closet skeletons. From the beginning, the reader knows that Alice and Charlie are complete and fundamental opposites. HeâÄôs charming; sheâÄôs a bit standoffish. HeâÄôs never held a steady job due to his familyâÄôs prominence, and sheâÄôs eked out a living as a librarian. When Charlie runs for governor of Wisconsin in 1994, someone suggests using âÄú(IâÄôve Got) Friends in Low PlacesâÄù by Garth Brooks as his campaign tune, which humiliates Alice. Despite their opposite personalities, the reader roots for their marriage to work, and for Alice to remain true to her liberal beliefs in the midst of her conservative environment. âÄúAmerican WifeâÄù is slyly clever, hinting at elements of past presidencies like those of the Kennedys (the Blackwell family has a âÄúrusticâÄù beach compound and is comprised of lots of competitive sons), the Clintons (CharlieâÄôs hinted-at infidelities, his easy charm and their single daughter Ella mirror the lives of Bill and Hillary), and, most obviously, of the Bush family. In fact, CharlieâÄôs presidency is a mirror of George W. BushâÄô s, what with a terrorist attack in 2001, a controversial war and a horrifically low approval rating during his second term. Sittenfeld even includes a faux-Karl Rove in the form of CharlieâÄôs Svengali Hank Ucker, who lurks behind the scenes much like BushâÄôs former adviser, airing the dirty laundry in private. Author Sittenfeld is definitely critical of the Bush administration and itâÄôs completely evident in âÄúAmerican Wife.âÄù One gets the idea that she feels specifically strong about abortion rights, but she incorporates her opinions into the novel in a deft manner rather than an irritating one. Though the novel weighs in at a whopping 555 pages, it reads in the pleasantly easy manner of its predecessors âÄúPrepâÄù and âÄúThe Man of my Dreams.âÄù It feels as though youâÄôre sitting with Alice in a kitchen, drinking coffee and listening to her life story. But AliceâÄôs stiffness makes her difficult to sympathize with. ItâÄôs the same way with her husband Charlie, who is a character so one-dimensional that he is basically the picture of George W. Bush, what with his simplicity and down-home manners. âÄúAmerican WifeâÄù is, like these last eight years of Bush, a novel with its flaws. ItâÄôs not the stunner of a debut that âÄúPrepâÄù was, but itâÄôs worth your while to pick up, perhaps before you step into the voting booth.