Book Review: AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld’s AMERICAN WIFE is the fictionalized story of Laura Bush. It is entertaining, funny and tragic, and shows off Ms. Sittenfeld’s pitch perfect voice for both Charlie Blackwell (the George Bush character) and Alice Lindgren (the Laura Bush character).

The novel is in four parts.

  1. 1272 Amity Lane, takes us from 1954, when Alice is eight years old to 1963, when she is seventeen and has a tragic accident that changes her forever. This part of the novel is a gripping read, because Ms. Sittenfeld does such a wonderful job of setting up Alice and her family in their ordinary everyday lives, making the tragedy that follows more shocking.
  2. 3859 Sproule Street is the story of how Alice and Charlie fell in love in the summer of 1977, and married in the Fall of that year. Here, Ms. Sttenfeld’s ear for speech is deployed  brilliantly in conveying the Charlie Blackwell character. There is a lot of graphic sex, and even a description of a male body part.
  3. 402 Maronee Drive is about the problems that occur in Alice and Charlie’s marriage, especially over the issue of Charlie’s alcoholism. Set in 1988, it tells how Charlie finally comes to grips with his demons when he discovers religion, after Alice threatens to leave him.
  4. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue deals with the threat to expose a secret from Alice’s past if she will not intervene in a Supreme Court Justice nomination. It is set in 2007, during President Blackwell’s second term, and conveys very well the issues and turbulence of that time when the US was fighting a war on two fronts.

I don’t think that there is much doubt that Parts 1 and 2 of the novel are stronger than parts 3 and 4, mainly because the tension in the first part of the novel is better handled.

In Part 3, the dramatic tension comes from Alice’s threat to leave Charlie, so the reader wants to know who is going to bend first, Alice or Charlie. However, Ms. Sittenfeld does not highlight that tension, she merely presents a narrative that tells what happened. Perhaps this could have been remedied by changing point of view, with Charlie telling the story rather than Alice. That way, the reader would have been closer to Charlie’s  struggles, and would have understood why he was so fearful of Alice leaving him, and why he became religious.

In Part 4, the tension has to do with whether a figure from Alice’s past is going to expose her before the press. For some reason, Ms. Sittenfeld did not milk this for tension, and the denouement was too abrupt.

These faults should not prevent you from reading this novel. The first half of it shows a huge emotional range, which makes me hope that Curtis Sittenfeld will write something like it again.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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