AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittenfeld A little over two years ago, Curtis Sittenfeld came to Politics & Prose here in D.C. to read from her (then) new novel, American Wife. I enthusiastically went to the reading, took a lot of notes, and wrote this post about her talk. She answered a lot of questions about the book – a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush – and her answers were fascinating. I left knowing that I wanted to read the book, but for some reason I was daunted by it. It's a long book, to be sure, but I also feared it would be boring. How could the life of a modest and unassuming woman – one whom I thought I knew - be worth spending 550 pages reading about? So I let the book languish at the bottom of my TBR pile, despite the fact that I loved Sittenfeld's Prep so much that I rationed out the pages so that I wouldn't finish it too quickly.

Well, that was a mistake. I finally got to American Wife, and it was an excellent book. Not boring at all, as I feared, but compelling and beautifully written. As I noted above, it's the fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush. In the book, she's Alice Blackwell, and while she and her husband Charlie hail from Wisconsin instead of Texas, there's no mistaking who they are supposed to be. George W.'s presidency is the same, down to the flipflopping of Florida's votes on election night, the Svengali behind the scenes, and the older, hawkish VP.

Yet as far as Laura Bush's - er, Alice Blackwell's – life is concerned, Sittenfeld says that outside of some tentpole events (the car accident she had as a senior in high school, her life as a children's librarian, her marriage to Charlie), Sittenfeld made the rest of it up. She definitely did her research, but Alice's internal dialogue, as well as the nuances of her relationship with her husband, are the result of Sittenfeld's creative mind.

Just like in Prep, Sittenfeld creates a deeply sympathetic heroine in American Wife. Charlie is flawed – at times terribly selfish and self-absorbed – but the reader can at least understand how someone like Alice ended up with someone like him. American Wife is ultimately the depiction of a marriage – albeit that of a couple who ultimately ends up living at 1600 Pennslyvania – and the sacrifices and secrets spouses make and keep to preserve their unions, for better or worse.

I had a few issues with the ending. I will leave it at that, so that I don't reveal too much. I think Sittenfeld pushed her own political agenda a little too strongly, which detracted from the character and story she had so carefully constructed. But that was just one part of a much larger book. 

I feel like I am not doing American Wife justice in this review.  It's a hard book to reduce to a few paragraphs – it's so sweeping and detailed. It was one of my favorite reads of 2010, and I highly recommend it.

One note: I went back and forth between the audiobook and the paper version of American Wife. I can't recommend the audiobook. The narrator's voice borders on robotic at times, and it bothered me. She also read unecessarily slowly. I understand why they picked her – she has a vaguely southern, proper sound to her voice – but I found it kind of grating.

Would love to hear from others who have read this!

15 Comments

  • October 28, 2010 - 6:23 am | Permalink

    One of my favorite books of all time. Sittenfeld astounds me as a novelist, especially considering how young she is (barely 30 when she was writing this one). I read the book well over a year ago, and there are still scenes and subplots I think back to all the time. Plus, as in “Prep,” the characters are just so amazingly engaging. Like Gayle, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  • Sarah
    October 28, 2010 - 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Ditto. I loved this book and think of it often. Sittenfeld is a brilliant story teller (aside from “The Man of My Dreams” — ugh. CS should take her time and write only fabulous novels like “Prep” and “American Wife.” Even if they are several years in coming, they are well worth the wait).

  • October 28, 2010 - 7:35 pm | Permalink

    I’ve wondered about this book, so I’m glad to see you enjoyed it. It’s too bad they didn’t pick a better reader for the audio version.

  • October 29, 2010 - 7:00 am | Permalink

    Reviews for this book seem to run hot and cold (or somewhere in the middle). I haven’t read it but wanted to comment about authors injecting their own political agenda into novels. I find it a huge distraction and it tends to color my feelings about the book. Doesn’t matter if I agree with the politics or not.

  • October 29, 2010 - 3:15 pm | Permalink

    As you know, this is my all-time favorite book. I hope to re-read it soon to see how it holds up for me. I’m disappointed to hear the audio version isn’t good, as this story should be great on audio. I’m glad you finally read it and enjoyed it, even if the ending didn’t totally work for you!

  • October 30, 2010 - 7:53 am | Permalink

    I read American Wife first, followed by Prep.
    I really enjoyed American Wife. I read it over a year ago and still remember the details. I liked Prep but out of the two I like this book a little more.
    Prep was an audio for me and as you know… audio can be a completely different experience.

  • November 1, 2010 - 12:01 am | Permalink

    This is just an okay read for me. I was more interested what is really the truth 🙂 I didn’t move to the US until 2004 so I guess I didn’t know as much about the Bush histories as others do. My review:
    http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2010/04/book-review-american-wife-by-curtis.html

  • November 1, 2010 - 8:03 am | Permalink

    Christa – I was definitely wondering about the truth the whole time too!
    Sent from my iPad

  • November 1, 2010 - 8:00 pm | Permalink

    This is our book club pick for December. It’s sitting on my table right now. I can’t wait.

  • November 2, 2010 - 10:40 pm | Permalink

    or too many to thank

  • November 3, 2010 - 11:04 pm | Permalink

    I think I felt similarly as you initially did about this book, unfortunately for me I don’t think it survived the big purge. Bummer.

  • November 4, 2010 - 10:29 pm | Permalink

    I loved this one too – one of my best reads of last year. The high school part was especially amazing – I knew what was coming but it was still devastating.

  • November 8, 2010 - 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I just reviewed the audio version for our library’s blog and had the opposite opinion on the narrator, but the same good opinion of the novel. I thought the audiobook narrator was good and really brought out the character of Alice. I didn’t think too much about what was true or not, just tried to accept it as a fictional work as much as I could. It probably helped that all I really knew about Laura Bush was that she had been a librarian.
    I linked to your blog post at the end of mine for an alternative opinion. I just discovered your blog today & subscribed.
    My review: http://brocktonpubliclibrary.blogspot.com/2010/11/american-wife-by-curtis-sittenfeld.html

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