American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittenfeld, Curtis. American Wife. New York: Random House. 2008.

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(Note: books are rated from one to five smiley faces, one being a book I didn’t like very much, and five being a book I loved.)

You’ve got to read this book! Really. Drop everything and get on over to the library to pick up a copy. I can’t believe I’m saying that, because I had decided, after reading Sittenfeld’s Prep a few years ago, that I wasn’t impressed with her. I didn’t plan to read any more of her books. I’m glad a friend of mine was persistent enough about this one to open my mind.

In case you don’t know about this book, Sittenfeld based it on Laura Bush’s life. Don’t let that influence you, though. It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is. This book is a Masterpiece of Characterization and Character Study. Sittenfeld has done a wonderful, realistic, heartfelt job of imagining what it must be like to fall in love and to wake up one day, discovering that you are the president’s wife. It wasn’t that you weren’t given fair warning before it happened, or even that long ago, back when you, this serious, principled, school librarian had met this fun, light-hearted “frat boy” who made you laugh, that it had been completely out of the realm of possibility. But the boy had made your heart flutter, and he’d been running for Congress when he didn’t stand a chance of winning, and you hadn’t really thought at all about the prospect of one day being Mrs. President of the United States. However, here you are, and you’re not really sure how you feel about it.

Sittenfeld pays so much attention to detail and has such a fine grasp of human nature that I found myself in a wonderful world of constantly forgetting the Bushes, then remembering them (“oh yeah, George Bush bought a baseball team”), then forgetting and remembering them again. Maybe that would discombobulate some, but I very much enjoyed the odd ride. I don’t think I’ve ever read a “historical novel” based on such recent events.

That’s the brilliance of this book, though. It makes the reader realize something I’ve always suspected: we don’t and can’t ever really “know” anyone in the public eye. All we really know is who they pretend to be in public and the spin the press puts on them. In fact, we don’t even know those we think we do. It’s nothing new to highlight the fact that even family members and close friends are hidden to us and that most of us don’t always know ourselves all that well, either, but Sittenfeld does so in so many thought-provoking ways. She is especially good at exploring how little we know about the ways in which tragic events affect each of us individually.

Sittenfeld touches on many other themes as well. One of my favorites is the class distinctions in this country that we so often want to deny. Alice Blackwell (Laura Bush) is introduced to a society so much “higher” than her own and has to learn to live in it. In that respect, the book was an excellent one to read after The Help (another novel about social classes). The book also explores love, of course, and women’s roles, and marriage, and living in the public eye. Sittenfeld looks at all of these with warmth and humor and passion.

Laura Bush’s autobiography is being released this month. I’ve never been one who’s had much of an interest, for some reason, in reading autobiographies of presidents and their wives. I think it’s because I just don’t believe they are able to tell “the whole truth,” that they still have to keep up a public image. However, I’m interested to read this one now, as well as other books Sittenfeld cites as having inspired her.

This is one of those books that, when you’re done, after living with these characters you’ve come to know so well and to love, leaves you feeling a bit hopeless. What can you possibly read next that can be as absorbing and as good? And woe the book that follows! Even if it’s brilliant, it probably just won’t compare. Maybe it’s time for me to read some magazines for a while or something…

May I repeat? You’ve got to read this book.