Monday, October 13, 2008

Read this now! American Wife

It’s very easy to dislike someone from afar. I for one, have always disliked Laura Bush, put off by her all around stiffness—stiff hair, stiff smile, stiff body language. She’s always seemed robotic to me—a kind of Republican Stepford Wife, hiding her contempt (for who? Democrats? feminists? her husband?) under a bullet-proof veneer of hairspray, navy blue business suits, and steely perfection.

But the truth is, no one is equal to their public persona—least of all politicians or their spouses. And you would probably find that if you were to meet even your most hated political demon—Cheney, Rumsfeld (although I draw the line at Karl Rove)—they might actually tell a good joke, or share some common interest with you, or have an endearingly close relationship with their aunt (or dog or whomever) and you’d find some glimmer of humanity in them that would make it impossible for you to go on disliking them.

In short, Curtis Sittenfeld has made it impossible for me to dislike Laura Bush. (Damn her!)

In interviews, Sittenfeld has said she’s a left-leaning Democrat and I believe her. But she’s also, by her own admission, obsessed by Laura Bush, the modest, middle class librarian who married a charming, if n’er-do-well scion of a political dynasty, only to watch in stunned amazement as he got sober, found God, and became first a governor and then a two-term U.S. president.

Sittenfeld’s Alice is based on Laura Bush in so many ways, it’s hard to tell where the biography ends and the fiction begins. But her journey into the inner life of this character is so complete, so filled with insight and detail, it paints an incredibly convincing picture of what Laura Bush could be like.

In the book, Alice has a larger-than-life grandmother—a feisty, intellectual (and lesbian!)—who fears that Alice, while studious and dutiful, might just be a bit boring. (The character of the lesbian grandmother is presumably made up.)

Sittenfeld suggests that, indeed, Alice might have lived a life of stoic, Midwestern normalcy were it not for the gloriously disruptive presence of her grandmother and a defining life tragedy: When she was 17, Alice, like Laura Bush herself, struck and killed a male classmate with her car. In the novel, the boy was also the love of her young life.

Sittenfeld sees this as a moment where a life of bland comfort and predictability veers violently off-course, giving Alice a kind of permanent melancholy, plus a fatalism and toughness she would carry into adulthood.

After the accident, Alice doesn’t demand much from life. She remains unfailingly kind, generous, a lover of children and literature—but the expectations of “normalcy” (whatever that really is) have eluded her. So she is 31, practically nearing spinsterhood, when she meets Charlie (aka George W.) at a party.

He is, just like the real George W., a handsome, rapscallion, overgrown frat boy. Always quick with an inappropriate joke or a chummy remark. Where she is quiet, he is boisterous. Where she is cautious, he is reckless and carefree. Where she is modest, he is vulgar. Also, where Alice sees the world in shades of gray, Charlie has the certainty and confidence of a man who has led a charmed life of privilege—yes, he sees the world in black and white.

Charlie pursues Alice doggedly and she finds that his brio and joie de vivre are so forceful, they take away her sadness.
She doesn’t really think he’s a man of substance, but she loves him, despite herself.

A few more words about Charlie: He’s not a villain in this—just a fun-loving lightweight in way over his head. Don’t get me wrong, he’s hardly a hero—Sittenfeld shows him to be vain, shallow, and possibly even racist—but he’s not completely unappealing. (And oh yes, Sittenfeld goes there—if you ever wondered what the president’s, uh, manhood looks like, Sittenfeld describes it in glorious detail. Indeed, the sex scenes in this book are so vivid, I marveled at Sittenfeld’s chutzpah. The Bushes are, after all, still in office.)

As I’ve told friends, Laura Bush comparisons aside, Alice Lindgren is an amazing literary heroine. (Her tough-cookie-meets-tough cookie run-ins with the intimidating Barbara Bush character, Maj, are particularly satisfying). And the book is an absolutely spellbinding page turner—with insights about class and privilege that are Sittenfeld's specialty.

Of course, there’s a reason Sittenfeld calls this book American Wife, not First Lady. What she’s saying is that all marriages—heck, all lives—are filled with moments of soaring joy, as well as those of compromise and disappointment. Sittenfeld reminds us that to view people as anything less than rich and complex, rife with nuance and contradictions, is to adopt the world view of, well, George W. Bush. And, really, who would want to do that?


Laura said...

I really enjoyed this book as well. It made me pose a lot of the same questions you mention in your post.

Jennifer said...

I will definitely check this out!!