Title: American Wife
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Release date: September 2, 2008
Publisher: Random House
Rating: 5 out of 5
Alice Blackwell can’t stop thinking about the man camped outside the White House. He won’t leave, he pledges, until he can convince Charlie Blackwell to end the war in Iraq. For the first time in many years, Alice begins to agree with the man: her husband, the President of the United States, is wrong.
Her musings lead Alice toward an examination of a life lived, as she succinctly words it, “almost in opposition to itself.”
Alice Lindgren was a quiet only child raised in Wisconsin. She is quintessentially Midwestern—or, at least, so it seems, since I have never been to the Midwest. There is such a strong sense of place that pervades the novel and transports the reader into Alice’s world. The importance of this place in Alice’s life is never more apparent than in the way she describes her native state:
Admittedly, the area possesses a dowdiness I personally have always found comforting, but to think of Wisconsin specifically or the Midwest as a whole as anything other than beautiful is to ignore the extraordinary power of the land . . . . It is quietly lovely, not preening, with the need to have its attributes remarked on. It is the place I am calmest and most myself.
Alice’s sheltered, steady life is rocked one night, however, when she is involved in a car accident with Andrew Imhoff, one of her high school classmates. His death is made all the more terrible by the fact that they had always shared a bond, and she had imagined that one day they would get married. She learns a tragic lesson in the fragility of life and the unexpected turns that fate may take. After Andrew’s death, she is shunned in school—not because people blame her for the accident, but because “now I reminded cheerful people of sorrow.” Alice makes seemingly the first impetuous decision of her life: She begins sleeping with Andrew’s coarse brother, Pete, which “might have been mortifying if I were still me. If the world still existed. But I wasn’t, and it didn’t . . . . This was the only thing more powerful than grief.”
Yet Alice always remembers she special connection she shared with Andrew. He understood her in a way few others ever did:
People recognized you or they didn’t, and it was unrelated to knowing you. Knowing you could just be your name or the street you lived on, your father’s job. Recognizing you was understanding you had thoughts in your head, finding the same things funny or excruciating, remembering what you’d said months or even years after you’d said it.
Even in adulthood, Alice is plagued by a constant chorus of doubt and “what ifs” about Andrew and the life they could have had together. As an adult, Alice, an inveterate bookworm, becomes the school librarian at an elementary school in Madison, and she is confident that she has found the life she has always sought—quiet, comfortable, perhaps not deserving—so she thinks, still plagued by guilt and grief—but certainly not overreaching.
But her quiet contentment is interrupted by raucous, gregarious Charlie Blackwell, with whom she has a charming, whirlwind romance—the second impetuous thing she seems ever to have done. The pair is perfect; she lends her impetuous husband an air of seriousness, and he makes her laugh. They become engaged after dating for only seven weeks. Alice experiences in her posh new world of country clubs, summer estates, and Princeton reunions an even greater sense of unease about the wiles of chance.
Alice’s convictions are never clearer than when she examines her relationship with others. When, during a rough patch in her marriage to Charlie, Alice contemplates raising their daughter, Ella, she relies upon the simple Midwestern values of her own upbringing:
[W]hat I did care about, what I wanted most fervently, was for her to understand that hard work paid off, that decency begat decency, that humility was not a raincoat you occasionally pulled on when you thought conditions called for it, but rather a constant way of existing in the world, knowing that good and bad luck touched everyone, and none of us was fully responsible for our fortunes or tragedies.
That idea—that no one is fully responsible for the direction her life takes or the actions with which one is attributed—is central in understanding Alice.
When Charlie inexplicably and unexpectedly wins the presidential election, the dichotomies of Alice’s life astound her all the more. How did a mousy, apolitical librarian find herself in a position of power and privilege, balancing tenuous influence and responsibility? What is her responsibility to her country, and is she wrong for keeping her misgivings about her husband’s controversial choices to herself?
Though Alice Blackwell is clearly modeled after Laura Bush, the book in no way attempts to remain true to Bush’s life. Instead, it presents an incredibly empathetic and deeply complex heroine who is fully aware of the contradictions of her own life and ponders her complicity in her husband’s actions. This book probably won’t change your mind about George W. Bush, who, as Charlie Blackwell, comes across a charming but somewhat immature and misguided man, but it will make you think twice about his spotlight-shy wife.
Joyce Carol Oates, in her review for The New York Times, finds in Alice an allegory for the American people—“the all-forgiving enabler”—who voted Bush into office and then were surprised when his actions did not correspond with their own values.
That may very well be accurate, but politics are not the defining force in this novel. Rather, American Wife quietly tackles love, grief, compromise, and character with subtly powerful prose. It is masterfully constructed and beautifully written, and I highly recommend it.
I was surprised to discover that Curtis Sittenfeld herself is rather young; she had just turned 33 when the book was published. Alice possesses such quiet wisdom and peace, it is difficult to think of her as the work of a woman only a few years older than me. Sittenfeld is certainly an author to watch.
It provided him with a way to structure his behavior, and a way to explain that behavior, both past and present, to himself. Perhaps fiction has, for me, served a similar purpose—what is a narrative arc if not the imposition of order on disparate events?—and perhaps it is my avid reading that has been my faith along.
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