american wife

I am in no way surprised by how much I enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife.  Before starting, I had heard nothing but positive things about it; I knew, from reading Prep, that I liked her narrative style; I was intrigued by the idea of the book being based on the wife of our 43rd president.  So I had a pretty good feeling that this would be a book I would like, very possibly love. 

And I did.  But what I am surprised about is how easy it was to forget that this is a novel based on an actual person.  Sittenfeld does such a masterful job of developing the character of Alice in her own right that I stopped caring whether this particular event was fictional or not, or whether that character was supposed represent a real-life individual — at least through  most of the book. 

Sittenfeld opens with a brief prologue, in which we’re introduced to Alice — the wife of the president — awake in the middle of the night, thinking about her life and a decision she made that day.  This gives the entire narrative a reflective tone; though (apart from the prologue) the story is told chronologically, an occasional reflective insertion reminds the reader that the narrator is telling this tale from an unusual perspective.

The novel is divided into 4 parts, each titled by an address and representative of a phase of Alice’s life.  Her childhood home, 1272 Amity Lane, is the setting for Part I, where her safe, normal adolescence is upended by a transformational tragedy during her senior year of high school.   The title of Part II is 3859 Sproule Street, the apartment Alice lives in while a teacher in Madison (most of the novel is set in Wisconsin), and her home during her whirlwind courtship with Charlie Blackwell, son a former governor and one of “the Blackwells.”  Part III centers around 402 Maronee Drive, the home Charlie and Alice buy after marrying, and the place in which Alice tries to come to terms with the lifestyle she has married into.  It is in these three sections that the novel could be entirely fictional.  Sittenfeld’s portrayal of the ups and downs of Alice’s life make for an engaging story, and the characters — including the identifiable ones — are largely relatable and sympathetic (with the few exceptions being developed that way intentionally). 

It is in Part IV,  titled, of course, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, that it is no longer possible to separate the real-life Bushes from the fictional Blackwells.  Though only a day passes from the beginning of Part IV to the end, the 120 pages of the section provide enough flashbacks and reflections for the reader to understand the story of George Bush’s presidency — the 2000 election and recount, the attacks of September 11, the controversial war — is also the story of the Blackwell presidency.   But at the same time, it is the fictional events of this particular day that keep the character of Alice, rather than the idea of Laura Bush, at the forefront of the story.  

And in the end, as intriguing as the idea of a novel based on the wife of an unpopular president is, it is the character of Alice — her thoughts, her reflections, her actions, her reactions, largely the product of Sittenfeld’s imagination — that make this story the excellent one it is.

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~ by Molly on February 3, 2009.

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