American Wife fictionalizes Laura Bush's life, from childhood through the lame-duck years of her husband's presidency. Laura and George Bush are called Alice and Charlie Blackwell here, though they are quite recognizably the former president and first lady, both through mannerisms and circumstance, especially so in the last quarter of the book, which deals with Alice's experiences as First Lady.
The novel is by far best in the first half, as we follow Alice through a mid-west upbringing and adolescence in the fifties and sixties; her years as a single, independent young woman with a job she enjoys; and her initial romance with Charlie. Alice is extremely compelling in this half of the book--she's intelligent and confident, but with a tendency to keep herself to herself, a fear of exposing herself, of being wholly who she is in front of others. There's nothing doormattish about her, and she doesn't let these insecurities get in her way, but, still, there's that reining in, that holding back. I imagine a lot of smart, capable women who would rather sit at home and read than go to a party would see a lot of themselves in Alice, and Sittenfeld portrays these seemingly contradictory aspects of Alice's personality with a deft and subtle touch.
But then Alice marries boisterous, wealthy, laddish, ambitious-but-aimless Charlie and the life just drops out of the book. Alice becomes a house-wife, though an upper-class one who will never fade away under the drudgery of housework. She still seems pretty content, it's clear that she loves her husband, and she becomes a good mother it their only child--but gone is the strong sense of her as an intellectual, gone is the job she enjoys. We see some marital problems involving Charlie and drink, and Alice has enough backbone to quietly force Charlie to choose between his substance abuse and his family, but even then Alice seems curiously passive, curiously toothless. Charlie gets religion, the aimlessness falls away, and, in a somewhat odd jump forward in the narrative of some twenty years, he becomes president.
The "First Lady Years" section of the book is the least compelling--and the least well-written. Alice tells us much about the difficulties of being in the public eye, of how strange it is to be part of the public face of an administration with which she rarely agrees, of how exasperating it is to hear over and over of the puzzlement of those who don't understand how smart, bookish, liberal Alice Blackwell could possibly love conservative, war-mongering, rights-trampling President Charlie Blackwell. This section ought to be the thematic center of the novel--this ought to be the part where the book becomes whole, where the reason for writing a novel about a still-living real person becomes clear. By the end, we ought to understand more fully Laura Bush or the office of the first lady or even just wifehood (the book's title, lacking an article as it does, seems to be reaching for some claim to a universal statement about American wives).
And the thing is, we don't. Alice stands up for herself again in the end, separating herself briefly from her husband and from her role as First Lady to be just Alice Blackwell, but the moment is just as passive and toothless as her stand against Charlie's drinking is earlier on. Alice--smart, capable, happy Alice--is still subsumed under boisterous, laddish, ambitious Charlie. What have we learned? That people love who they love, and that intellectual or political compatibility doesn't necessarily come into it? No kidding. That smart, independent women often lose part of themselves through their genuine love of louder, more ambitious men? You don't say. Illustrating these facts beautifully and startlingly or giving Alice a convincing, true moment of reclamation of some of her younger independence of self--either of these would have made American Wife into something really satisfying. But instead the novel just wilts when Alice marries Charlie and becomes more and more lifeless and rambling as it goes on.
This review origianlly appeared on my LibraryThing account.