Review: American Wife

american-wife1Title: American Wife

Author: Curtis Sittenfeld

Genre: Fiction; 558 pages*

Publication: 9/2/2008

Publisher: Random House

Rating: 2 Bookmarks

Though this book has been in print for a while and reviews abound, here’s my take.

American Wife is loosely based on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush.  The protagonist, Alice (Lindgren) Blackwell, narrates the tome in four segments, each detailing a different era in her life.  I thought that Sittenfeld’s use of street addresses to delineate the sections was clever (ie. Part IV: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).

I’m not sure if it’s my liberal side shining through, but I was really enjoying the book until Alice started showing a serious interest in Charlie Blackwell (George W. Bush).  She was a multi-faceted character with depth who won me over; then she married Blackwell. 

Over the course of the book, Alice is tormented with guilt for causing the death of a classmate (and potential boyfriend/husband), Andrew Imoff, in a motor vehicle accident when she was 17.  Forty-four years later in the White House, she still grapples with the pain and guilt, lamenting the fact that their relationship never had a chance to begin.  Alice’s feelings are palpable–Sittenfeld did an excellent job of conveying Alice’s agony. 

The extended Blackwell clan came off as boorish, racist, elitist snobs and I couldn’t stand reading about them.  The matriarch, ‘Maj’ (short for Her Majesty) was a piece of work who needed to be taken down a peg or two.  The characterization of Charlie’s brothers and their wives spoke to privilege and arrogance.

For me, the book began to drag as Sittenfeld detailed Charlie’s introduction into the political arena.  His depression, fueled by feelings of failure and numbed by alcohol, ultimately led him to God and sobriety.

And on it goes, through Charlie’s rise of political power to the White House via the Governorship of Wisconsin.  I understand that in general, people want to make their marriages a success, but where do we draw the line?  Sittenfeld characterized Charlie as an obnoxious frat boy and abhorrent cretin in general.  Why Alice tolerated his behavior and stayed with him was beyond my comprehension.

American Wife started off strong, with an interesting plot line and a likeable protagonist.  As the book went on and Alice met and married Charlie, it lost some of its appeal and I grew disenchanted with a narrator I initially liked.  That said, I wouldn’t cross this book off your TBR list because it was entertaining and piqued my interest in reading The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush by Ann Gerhart.

* Random House’s website has the book at 576 pages; the ARC I have has 558.

22 responses to “Review: American Wife

  1. Reviews of this one seem to be all over the place. I think I’ll skip it.

  2. I’ve heard mostly positive reviews of his one among my friends, interestingly enough. It’s not one I’ve been biting at the bit to read. I can’t put my finger on why though. I am glad you found it a worthwhile read despite it turning disappointing.

  3. I haven’t heard of this one. I find it so disappointing when a book has such a promising start and then dissolves into mediocre by the end, especially when you have put so much effort into reading it. PS – it is nice to find someone who is organised – I shall come back for tips!

  4. I absolutely loved this book – the whole way through (I love your description of the family – spot on!!) but my best friend who read it after me agrees with you – the book started to drag towards the end for her.

  5. I didn’t realize this book was based on Laura Bush’s life. Interesting. I have read Sittenfelds other books and enjoyed them. Perhaps I will just get this one from the library for a read some day.

    Thanks for a great review. 🙂

  6. Good review. I like your honesty and your rating system. I personally think my dislike of the Bushes would just influence me too much on this book. I think I’ll be back to see more of what you have to say!

  7. I’m on the fence about this book. I love Laura Bush because she’s a former librarian and loves books and seems shy and retiring, but I cannot imagine what she sees in W.

  8. I loved “Prep” and have wanted to read this book since I heard about it last year. I think that I will also have a problem reading about the (fictional) Bush clan because I am SO not a fan of them. I’ll get to this one eventually… 🙂 Thanks for the review.

  9. I was intrigued by the premise of this one but worried if would just be bor-ing. I’m sure I would share your sentiments!

    I do have The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller waiting for me — somewhat similar content, but with a decidedly different sping. Might be more my cup of tea (and perhaps yours?). I’ll be back with answers!

  10. “Sping” — I invented a new word! Go me! 🙂 Or different “spin” — whichever you prefer 🙂

  11. Hmmmm this sounds different. How comical that you begin to dislike her character as soon as she starts making horrible decisions! Haha.

  12. The reviews that I’ve read have been all over the board as well. I plan on reading it eventually but there isn’t any hurry. Great review!

  13. Hmm, I’ve had this one on my shelf for awhile and I keep going back and forth. Thanks for the review!

  14. I just started this book for my new book club. I thought it would make for interesting discussion because I think our members represent a mix of political leanings. I am liberal, so I will try to restrain myself when discussing the thinly-disguised Bush clan! I wanted to read this to see how Sittenfeld takes a current-day famous family and fictionalizes their lives. I’ve read Prep, so think she is an interesting writer. Nat, I’m glad you gave it a whirl and wrote this review.

  15. I have been enjoying your reviews very much, Nat. No comment w/ regard to this book or its subject matter (which as a bleeding heart I will have to pass on). But wanted to tell you we spent Tues. afternoon eating lobstah rolls in Kennebunkport, and afterward scoped out the Bush compound. VERY SECURE.

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