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Book Review: American Wife

American Wife
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 2008
 
Neither of Curtis Sittenfeld’s two previous books, Prep or The Man of My Dreams , gave her readers any hint of the subtlety, wit, and sheer storytelling power that is so abundantly on display in her latest novel, American Wife, and I worry that the attention the book’s received in the press will turn away more potential readers than it brings in.

That attention, of course, has centered around the fact that the book’s main character, Wisconsin librarian Alice, and her reformed alcoholic husband Charlie Blackwell, who becomes an out-of-his-depth two-term American president, are obviously patterned on President George Bush and his wife Laura. The book arrives in an election year, and much effort has been spent by critics attempting to decipher just how partisan Sittenfeld’s take on the Bushes is.

This is deeply unfortunate, because the book is a masterpiece that has actually very little to do election year commentary. The Bushes were merely handy grains of dust around which Sittenfeld has fashioned a pearl of a novel dealing with politics, love, and the unbelievable strain each puts upon the other. In its elegant and piercing examination of its characters and their various ambitions, American Wife is better than any novel published in twenty years. In the heart of Fitzgerald territory, it’s damn near as good as Fitzgerald:

Jadey was adjusting the back of the lounge chair again, flattening it, and she made a harrumphing sound and rolled onto her stomach. Her face was turned to me, half of it pressed against the chair’s vinyl straps. She said, “Did you have any idea marriage would be so damn much work? God almighty.” She’d removed her sunglasses before lying down, and her eyes dropped shut. In a drowsy voice, she said, “You still worried about Chas and his whiskey?”
“I may have been overreacting.”

“I forgot to watch him at Maj and Pee-Paw’s, maybe ‘cause I was so busy knocking back the vino myself. You have any of that merlot?”
“I had a glass of the chardonnay.”
She opened her eyes, propping herself up on her elbows. “A glass?” she repeated. “As in one glass?” When I nodded, she said, “Honey, maybe it’s not that Chas needs to drink less. Maybe it’s that you need to drink more.”

At the heart of the book, obviously, is a marriage so flawed and yet heartfelt that it’s immediately believable, for all the presidential convolutions of the plot. Sittenfeld’s Alice is always unstintingly honest with herself, as in this scene where she watches her husband shave:

I watched as he brought the razor down his right cheek, his mouth twisted to the left, and I felt such an intimate kind of anger. Was this what marriage was, the slow process of getting to know another individual far better than was advisable? Sometimes Charlie’s gestures and inflections were so mercilessly familiar that it was as if he were an extension of me, an element of my own personality over which I had little control.

I urge readers to forget they’ve ever heard of the Bushes (some readers will need less urging on this point than others) and read this novel for what it is: a hugely perceptive look at the American political elite and an impressive leap forward by one of America’s best working novelists.