My blog has been quiet for the last few days because Monday morning I woke up with an unexpected summer cold that sidelined me. Being sick is awful, but serendipitously, over the weekend I’d picked up American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld at the library, so Monday morning I went back to bed and started reading. I finished it yesterday morning.
Wow, what an amazing book. From first line to last, American Wife totally had me in its thrall. (I admit, I was even sorta glad I got sick so I could read this book straight through!)
I read Sittenfeld’s Prep (the story of a girl’s experiences in prep school) several years ago, and I really enjoyed it. It was uncomfortably realistic in the best possible way. I didn’t read Sittenfeld’s second novel, The Man of My Dreams, because it seemed to be about a young woman and all her (straight) relationships, which wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to read. (After reading American Wife, I am actually interested in reading The Man of My Dreams.)
When American Wife came out in 2008, I was vaguely intrigued by the premise, but only vaguely. You see, American Wife “is a work of fiction loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady” (according to the brief note at the beginning of the book). That first lady is Laura Bush.
I’d never given much thought to Laura Bush, but like a lot of people in this country, I definitely wondered why someone as nice as her would marry a doofus like George W. However, I had little interest in reading a fictionalized account of her life. The very idea of such a thing seemed gimmicky and potentially ridiculous — and yet, simultaneously, it did seem sort of enticing. I do become deeply fascinated by presidential politics. I loved The West Wing!
But I didn’t pick up the book until after I went to ALA and had lunch with a fellow writer. I had been telling her that the book I was working on had a very complicated party scene in it — there were lots of people, new things needed to be encountered — and she recommended American Wife because she remembered it included a successful party scene. Since I’d always had the idea of maybe someday reading it in the back of my mind, the next time I went to the library I checked it out.
Why am I going into all this detail about why I hadn’t read American Wife till now? Expectations. Expectations are the bane of every writer, because you can never control the expectations the reader brings with them to the book. Those expectations can make or break a book — and they have nothing to do with the book you’ve actually written.
A book that is a fictionalized account of Laura Bush’s life is completely cloaked in expectations, because readers already know plenty of things about Laura Bush. When you read a story about a fictional version, you’ll constantly be asking yourself: Is this realistic? Is this what Laura Bush really sounded like, how she really would have acted? Writing a book like this, I realized, is a minefield. Sittenfeld could have slipped up at any moment by having her fictional Laura — a woman named Alice Blackwell — do something that seemed out of character.
And yet: Who are we, the public, to know anything about what the real Laura Bush is like? In a way, I see that question as the central question of this novel. It’s addressed throughout the novel by Alice Blackwell herself as she ponders the nature of celebrity and fame, and the choices she’s made and how other people view them.
The book begins in a very canny way, with a question that instantly works to address readers’ expectations — which has the result of shifting those expectations over, making room for the fictional Alice Blackwell to come alive. This is how the novel begins:
“Have I made terrible mistakes?”
Isn’t that a question we’ve all thought, at least subconsciously, about ourselves? I think that by beginning the book with that question, in Alice Blackwell’s voice, Sittenfeld begins the process of getting the reader to identify with Alice, and thus, to shed those expectations.
Addtionally, that question immediately addresses all sorts of things we could imagine Laura Bush seeing as mistakes. Was it a mistake to not lobby her husband more to stop the war in Iraq? Was it a mistake to marry him in the first place? As soon as I read that first line, I wanted to know the answer to the question, even though I suspected that the answer was yes, because everyone has made terrible mistakes.
As a reader, American Wife was compulsively readable. I loved the details of Alice’s Midwestern life; I loved her family, especially her grandmother; I loved the unexpected yet completely organic inclusion of a lesbian character; I loved Alice’s voice, which was so matter-of-fact and honest. I even loved getting to know fake George W. Bush, and I have to say, I think differently (maybe more kindly) of the real man now that I’ve read about this fictional version.
As a writer, American Wife did a lot of things well. I noticed that it included a lot of telling: Alice telling us her feelings about certain things; Alice explaining what she did and why; Alice taking us quickly through years by telling us what happened. I often hear the maxim “show don’t tell” when it comes to writing, but I’ve always found that to be misleading at best. Sometimes you have to tell. That’s why it’s called storytelling.
And yes, the party scene was successful. In fact there were two memorable scenes involving lots of people meeting for the first time that I’m going to go back and reread. These are the kinds of scenes I find most difficult: multiple characters that you have to choreograph doing various things, like a complicated dance. (Party scenes, to me, feel like battle scenes — both are difficult!)
Anyway, as you can tell I really enjoyed American Wife. I highly recommend it if you’ve ever had any sort of curiosity about Laura Bush or first ladies. It’s also a fascinating portrait of a marriage — something I never expected I’d be interested in! Which just goes to prove that I should always try to leave my expectations at the door.