Thursday, May 14, 2009

Book Review: American Wife

Title American Wife
Author Curtis Sittenfeld
Genre Literary Fiction
Rating B

Summary Read about nearly the entire life of "fictitious" First Lady, Alice Blackwell (nee Lindgren) and see how all of that life (with special emphasis on one particularly critical event) has been one large cosmic build-up to a key day in the Presidency of her husband, Charlie Blackwell (who bears nearly no resemblence to former President George Bush).

First Line "Have I made terrible mistakes?"

Review I picked up this book at the airport when I finished my other book that I'd brought on the trip and needed to have something to get me back home. I am quick to admit that I have a big-time author crush on Curtis Sittenfeld, but I'd put off reading American Wife because I didn't want to read some liberal rip-off/snark of the Bushes (and I don't even particularly like the Bush family, in the Presidential-sense).

But that's the beauty of Sittenfeld, she fooled me. You don't even get to the time when the near-Laura-Bush meets the near-George-Bush until page 115, and by then you love the near-Laura-Bush character. I'd never given much thought to Laura Bush, but if she's anything like Alice Lindgren (which Sittenfeld sites both in a preface to the book and in the acknowledgements her research process), then she is a woman of strong character.

The section about the tragic event that "shaped" her was heart-breaking (and I made a hot mess of myself, crying on the plane), but I think that Sittenfeld (for literary purposes... because this is--don't forget this--a work of fiction) played this up too much. Sure, what happened was tragic, and probably Alice never really dealt with it (not in the true, get-your-feelings-out sense), but that still, forty years later, that one fateful night was shaping her actions and her feelings about her husband of twenty-plus years? I found that a little hard to swallow.

The other thing I found hard to swallow (and this is typical Sittenfeld) was the obsession with descriptions. She was on some kind of fanatical food kick and would describe everything that was on a buffet. She was also doing this weird thing with the interior of buildings and rooms and would described the carpet, the walls, the brick-a-brac, the smells, everything, and it got to be a little much. Take this example:
"We step into the living room, which holds a black leather couch and matching chair as well as a low coffee table, all facing an entertainment system--a triptych of shelves whose centerpiece is an enormous television set, flanked on one side by a stereo, speakers, and CD and DVD cases, and on the other side by several rows of propped-up collector plates featuring either horses (they gallop against a backdrop of western landscapes, their bodies at sharp sideways angles, their manes and tails blown fiercely by the wind) or else American Indians (a chieftain gripping a tomahawk with an eagle perched on his shoulder, a woman in long black braids and a fringed leather dress kneeling devotedly over a papoose)... The walls of the living room are covered in wood paneling, the carpet is mauve, and a doorway leads to an overcast narrow hall at the end of which another doorway opens onto, from my vantage point, a strip of a sunny room with a black-and-white checkerboard floor--the kitchen, I assume. The television set is on, set to Dr. Phil," (p. 506).
Maybe that was a literary device that was over my head. I wouldn't put it past Sittenfeld (because I harbor a chick crush on her). None the less, that got tedious and I did some skimming at parts.

Even still, I loved it. Mostly--and I'm not sure this is what Sittenfeld intended--I loved it because I fell in love with the Charlie character. I actually liked him more as a character because he said who he was and owned up to it, unlike Alice. In the climax of the book she, while she's First Lady, does something incredibly stupid (in regard to being naive about her political position as First Lady) and Charlie says, "Every decade, you like to pin me to the ground, pull open my mouth, and take a shit right into it," which I thought was genius dialogue. Charlie stays Charlie thoughout (which is probably a liberal slap at how Bush stayed "Bush" even when his foreign policy should have changed), but in regard to literature, it made him out to be an interesting character to juxtapose with Alice.

I only marked this book down (albeit somewhat significantly, from an A+ to a B) because of her excess of description and the implausibility of the role of the critical event in Alice's high school career affecting her so strongly (as noted above). That's not to say that I won't be keeping this book on my shelf and re-reading the courtship parts over and over again to pet my Sittenfeld crush.

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