Curtis Sittenfeld has written about life at an elite prep school (Prep, Mar/Apr 2005) and a young woman’s coming of age (The Man of My Dreams, Sept/Oct 2006). Here, she pens a fictional biography of Laura Bush.
The Story: The names, places, and other details may have changed, but American Wife is nothing less than a roman à clef about the life of Laura Bush. Her story is well known: When Alice Lindgren (Laura Bush), a 31-year-old librarian haunted by a car accident that killed her first crush, meets the politically ambitious party boy Charlie Blackwell (George W. Bush), she is swept off her feet. Charlie, after being elected governor of Wisconsin and then president of the United States, wages an unpopular war—and Alice struggles to reconcile her husband’s values with her own. "Have I made terrible mistakes?" she asks. The novel, which covers Alice’s girlhood, her years as school librarian, her young motherhood, and her ascendancy to the White House, portrays the ambivalence that led her down the path to power, fortune, and fame—and the personal compromises she made on the way.
Random House. 576 pages. $26. ISBN: 1400064759
"[A] remarkable piece of work, nuanced and persuasive as a portrait of a decent woman navigating her contradictions and the buffetings of fate. How accurately it captures Laura Bush’s inner life and the vicissitudes of her marriage are things only she and her intimates can know." Fritz Lanham
"Her imaginings of what it’s like to be in the White House post-9/11 and during a contentious war (Iraq is never mentioned) are mesmerizing and believable. If the book has one weakness, it’s that Sittenfeld spends too much time letting Alice wring her hands with guilt over her privileged life." Carol Memmott
"Beyond the inherent prurience of imagining the first lady’s premarital sex life, it’s a stretch to believe that this reserved character would include such details in a narrative, even to herself. … As a career move, American Wife is brilliant, with its timely, sensational back story." Heller McAlpin
New York Times
"Ms. Sittenfeld deftly captures Alice’s uneasy assimilation into the Blackwell clan’s boisterous, upper-class life—her account of a family gathering at the family’s Kennebunkport-like vacation home is wickedly hilarious—and she proves equally adept at evoking the daily texture of their early married life. … In the final pages … it’s clear that Ms. Sittenfeld has stopped channeling the thoughts and feelings of a character she has so meticulously created and instead begun using that heroine as a sock puppet for her own views on the unhappy tenure of the Bush administration." Michiko Kakutani
NY Times Book Review
"The mystery of Alice’s life—as it is the prevailing mystery of Laura Bush’s life, seen from the outside—is the wife’s seemingly unquestioned allegiance to a husband with values very different from her own, if not in mockery of her own. … American Wife is most engaging in its early chapters, when Alice Lindgren isn’t yet Alice Blackwell but an insecure young woman." Joyce Carol Oates
"Time and again, the reader is tempted to toss down the book and Google the details. That’s too bad, really, because Sittenfeld has an astonishing gift for creating characters that take up residence in readers’ heads. … Then again, would this story carry as much punch if we didn’t think that maybe, just maybe, this is how Laura Bush really feels?" Connie Schultz
"There is an annoying quality to American Wife that I noted in Sittenfeld’s earlier novels, always written in the first person: There is a sanctimonious overlay to the voice that does not completely mask a baffling grandiosity. … I am no fan of the Bushes, but I call it a cheap shot." Mandy Twaddell
While critics couldn’t say for sure whether or not Sittenfeld captures the exact thoughts of Laura Bush, they did agree that she creates a realistic and highly sympathetic portrayal of the (soon-to-be former) First Lady. (The author supposedly based the novel on Ann Gerhart’s 2004 biography, The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush.) Sittenfeld asks provoking questions about marriage, loyalty, and responsibility. But many reviewers couldn’t fundamentally understand why the very decent Alice had supported her husband despite her doubts about his capabilities; Sittenfeld’s pat, unsatisfactory answer is that Alice leads a life "in opposition." That, combined with the author’s obvious contempt for Charlie, brought the reviews down a notch. Still, there’s nothing as titillating as a look, albeit fictional, inside the White House—especially during an election year.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. The novel opens and closes with Alice wondering if she’s made terrible mistakes. Do you think she has? If so, what are they?
2. Alice’s grandmother passes down her love of reading. How else is Alice influenced by her grandmother?
3. Why does Andrew remain such an important figure to Alice, even decades later? Do you think they would have ended up together under different circumstances?
4. To what do you attribute Dena’s anger at what she calls Alice’s betrayal? Do you believe her anger is justified?
5. Is Charlie a likable character? Can you understand Alice’s attraction to him?
6. Does Alice compromise herself and her ideals during her marriage, or does she realistically alter her behavior and expectations in order to preserve the most important relationship in her life?
7. Were you surprised by the scene between Alice and Joe at the Princeton reunion? Why do you think it happened?
8. What would you have done in Alice’s situation at the end of the novel? Do you think it was wrong of her to take the stance she did?
9. How do you think Laura Bush would react to this novel if she read it?