"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Monday, August 22, 2016

Review #36: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Lots of people (do I have to tm Donald Trump?) around here have been reading Curtis Sittenfeld lately. I've seen the Pride & Prejudice remake reviews, but that wasn't available on my library's website, so I downloaded American Wife instead. In my head - and most likely because of the cover - I thought it would be about a Jackie Kennedy-esque first lady, but instead, it became increasingly clear that it's a thinly veiled tale of First Lady Laura Bush.
American Wife is the story of quiet, unassuming Alice Lindgreen, an only child from a small Wisconsin town, who meets and marries a boyishly charming and wealthy man who eventually becomes governor and then president. The first half of the book deals with Alice's childhood and upbringing, detailing her high school years, a tragic car accident on the eve of her senior year in which the object of her affection is killed, and her subsequent involvement with the dead boy's older brother, which results in an unplanned pregnancy that reveals some surprising news about her eccentric grandmother. Sittenfeld then moves on to Alice's life as a young, unmarried librarian, describing her time spent at the local elementary school and her friends' concerns that Alice hasn't married yet. Eventually, Alice meets Charlie Blackwell, the son of the former governor, and the only brother in the family to not be involved in politics. Charlie comes from a privileged background, he's charming and impish and, despite the differences in their beliefs, Alice can't resist him, and so they marry and have a daughter. For a little while, Alice and Charlie seem happy, but it quickly becomes obvious that Charlie has a drinking problem, and an employment problem, and a being a decent husband problem. The family doesn't really know what to do with him, but he is installed as a part owner of the local baseball team just about the time he also becomes a born-again Christian, and that seems to settle him down and it feels as though Charlie finally begins to grow up.
The second half of the book jumps from Charlie's time with the baseball team to his presidency; his time as governor warrants just one paragraph. It's post 9/11, and Charlie is running an increasingly unpopular war in the Middle East, his poll numbers are tanking, the father of a dead soldier has camped out across from the White House demanding an audience, and there's a woman who is threatening to reveal that Alice had an abortion in her teens. This could be disastrous for Charlie - he ran as solidly pro-life - but Alice is at the point where she kind of doesn't care any longer. Much of the second part of the book deals with Alice's weariness at the inconveniences Charlie's presidency has caused: the lack of privacy, people speaking out against her husband, the fact that she is suddenly one of the most famous women in the world. But what she focuses most on is her inability to speak her mind. Alice has very different opinions from Charlie - on the war, on abortion rights, on religion, on education, on just about everything - but as First Lady, she must remain loyal to her husband, even when she feels he is wrong.
Reviews I've read on American Wife are mixed. Sittenfeld is a fine writer - she certainly knows how to weave a good tale - but I struggled with the characters. Alice was on the edge of dull, occasionally showing bits of strength, but I found myself frustrated with her, although to be fair, I think she was frustrated with herself. Alice wanted to be more, she had the potential to be more and she knew it, but she held back, and I'm not sure whether I found it admirable that she did what she thought she had to in support of her husband, or irritating that she wasn't more outspoken and brave. Charlie was self-centered and annoying, a bro before the term was coined, and wildly immature. Traits that I think Sittenfeld meant to come across as charming - the boyishness, the dreamy qualities, the little boy still in love with baseball - instead made Charlie seem woefully stunted and too childlike to be taken seriously. The best character in the novel was Alice's grandmother, a strong, independent, slightly eccentric and very mysterious woman who introduced Alice to the love of reading (as an aside, Sittenfeld redeemed herself with her treatises on various novels; it's very obvious that she's a book lover of the highest order, and so I loved her a little bit for that) and took her out to show her the world.
American Wife just felt uneven, as though Sittenfeld - like Alice - couldn't quite decide what she wanted it to be. Perhaps this just isn't her best effort. But I trust my Cannonballers, so Eligible is still on my TBR list. 

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