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American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

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The main character (and the narrator) of this book is Alice Lindgren, who is loosely based on Laura Bush, wife of former President George W. Bush. When Alice is growing up in Riley, Wisconsin, with her loving parents and unconventional grandmother, she never imagines that she will end up married to the future President.


When she meets Charlie Blackwell – a man who seems politically, idealogically and socially poles apart from her – they do indeed fall in love and their enduring marriage has both blissfully happy times and desperately sad times. When Charlie eventually becomes President, she realises that when she disagrees with his policies, she may have to compromise her own beliefs to be seen as loyal to her husband; or she may have to publicly appear to betray her husband, and she is not sure which is worse.


I approached this book with some trepidation, as I was not sure I would enjoy it. However, I found it to be a gripping read. The narration by Alice is clean and quiet – she comes across as a thoroughly decent woman, if not always somebody who it would be easy to warm to (especially in the earlier parts of the book), who is conflicted between following her own beliefs, and her loyalty and love for her husband. Her life is overshadowed by an early tragedy – when she was 17, she was involved in car crash which killed a classmate and the event casts a shadow over her future life and happiness.


Charlie Blackwell – clearly based on George Bush – is portrayed as loud, gregarious, charismatic and a man who gets where he is more due to the talents of others, than any talents or skills of his own. I was left with the impression of a rather vacuous man, who probably would have been happier in his role as part owner of a baseball team, than he could be in the White House – and a man who ended up in a position which was far beyond his capabilities (in another reflection of real life).


Although the last part of the book deals with Blackwell’s presidency – and just like in real life, the terrorist attacks of 2001 are mentioned, and the resulting war that many Americans believed to be immoral and/or illegal, as well as the controversy surrounding the votes in Florida that led many to question the legitimacy of his presidency – the main bulk of the book focuses more on the marriage, with it’s various highs and lows.


The two main characters are incredibly well drawn and brought to life, and are utterly believable (possibly because they are based on real people, although it should be underlined that many of the events in the book are fictitious). The differences between Alice and Charlie are clear, but so is the love between them, and it is possible to see why she loves him (although I personally have never been a fan of George Bush).


The writing flows beautifully and I really felt able to lose myself in the story. I was sorry to reach the end of the book, and will definitely seek out more work by this author.


Highly recommended.

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I completely agree, Ruth.


This is what I wrote about the book when I read it last year:


Up front, we are told that the story of Alice Blackwell is "loosely inspired by the life an American first lady", but this loose inspiration has produced a compelling, engrossing book. The first person narrative draws you into Alice's life, but Sittenfeld's style of writing gives the character a remote, almost analytical, voice. Whilst it's not particularly a theme of the book, I felt that she captures the essence of growing up as an only child, and how that shapes the person you become, with a sense of independence and the ability to cope with isolation, even if that isolation is experienced within a marriage.


Alice is an intelligent and compassionate, at times vulnerable and flawed, but her story is an incredibly satisfying read, from her childhood in a small town girl through to her life as the President's wife. Whilst the book does eventually deal with Alice's courtship and marriage to Charlie, a thinly disguised George W. Bush, the book deals more with Alice's relationship with herself and her principles, and that was why I was completely drawn into the story.


A fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking novel.


I'd previously read both her other books, and enjoyed them a lot. She's one of the authors at the top of my list for buying any new books they write as I think she's a compelling storyteller.

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