Recommended Read: "American Wife" by Curtis Sittenfeld

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.

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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.

“Prep,” “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,” and YA fiction

This fall I read Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep (2005), which is about Lee Fiora's four years at the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. Beginning when Lee is 14 years old, Prep chronicles each of her years at Ault. Prep was a bestseller and has been widely compared to Catcher in the Rye for its memorable, detailed and true portrait of a young person. It was published by Random House as an adult novel, although the author (who is a woman, by the way) said in an interview with the New York Times that at first several publishers rejected it because they thought it was a young adult novel. I also recently read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2008) by E. Lockhart. It is also set in a prep school, Alabaster Preparatory Academy, and follows a girl (Frankie) beginning at age 14. Disreputable History was recently nominated for the National Book Award -- in the Young People's Literature category.

Both books deal with class in complex and fascinating detail. Both books deal with sex, although there is somewhat more sex in Prep, which also incorporates race into the mix. Disreputable History deals with power and sexism partly by incorporating a discussion of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, which I didn't read until graduate school. Why, then, is one book a young adult novel while the other is not?

Last month I went to a panel on YA fantasy at Book Passage, and the panelists agreed that YA is a publisher's construct meant to sell books. The only thread that ties together YA fiction is the age of the protagonists, who tend to be teenagers. But Prep is full of teens, and it was published as an adult novel.

I think Prep might be considered "adult" because there is more sex in it -- it's not exactly sexy sex, but it is clear what's going on, and there's also a key scene involving lesbian sexuality (yay!). But more importantly, Disreputable History is YA partly because the author, E. Lockhart, writes YA fiction. That's where her niche is, and that's where it was published.

I think it shows that the line between adult and young adult fiction can be extremely blurred these days, and crossover is more possible than ever. Not for all YA books, of course -- some of them are written for teens, and adults might have little interest in them whatsoever. But I do think that the periodic grumbling that erupts across the book world about how YA fiction is so subpar (read this essay, "I'm Y. A., and I'm O. K." for a brief overview, or check out this recent example from the "YA fiction usually sucks" category), is really yesterday's news. It's the same crap that's been thrown at all "genre" fiction through the ages, when in reality it boils down to this: Some books are good. Some books are not.

I really enjoyed both Prep and Disreputable History. The main character in Prep isn't as likeable (for most people) as Frankie Landau-Banks, but to me she was just as compelling, and she frankly reminded me of myself as a teenager. Frankie is prettier and more popular, which was not like me as a teen, but she has an intelligence and deviousness that I relished.

Reading these books in close succession was fascinating. I recommend them to anyone who is a girl or used to be one, and likes her fiction sharp and smart.