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American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I haven’t really talked much about books on this blog so far, aside from crafty ones. The truth is that between working, parenting, crafting, and blogging I get very little time to read. It is a great source of frustration to me that I can’t crochet and read a the same time. I do love reading though, and have always got a stack of books on my bedside table.

I’m a massive advocate of the library for books. My first port of call after discovering a book title is the online library catalogue. Ordering books online in this county is completely free. If the library doesn’t have the book you require you can even put a request in for them to buy it.

Anyway, I decided to carve out a bit of reading time and picked up American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s a weighty book, which is great because I didn’t want it to end. The blurb tells us that the story is about a fictional First Lady of the United States, Alice Blackwell, nee Lindgren, but in actual fact very little of the book is set within that era. Most of the book is about Alice’s life leading up to that time, starting as a young teen, continuing into her 30s when she gets married, continuing through married life until her husband becomes President of The United States, or POTUS for those of us in the know. Or in fact just those of us who are obsessed with the TV show The West Wing.

Early in the book Alice is involved in tragedy that results in the death of another person at her hands. Sittenfeld demonstrates how the tragedy haunts Alice without unduly dwelling on it. We follow her early career as a librarian, devotedly sharing her love of books with young children. When she meets Charlie Blackwell her life is changed forever, both for better and worse. The charismatic Charlie enlivens the serious protagonist, and her unswerving devotion to him enables her to navigate their relationship through the difficult relationship with her in laws and Charlie’s battle with alcohol. When Alice marries Charlie she is initiated into a world of money, power and unspoken rules. Charlie’s apparent lack of ability to stick at a career and insular view of the world make him an unlikely candidate for President, but money and influence seem to be all that is required to secure the top job. Alice is unwillingly drafted into a world where her every move, past and present, is under scrutiny. She struggles to suppress her liberal views while residing in a Republican White House.

This is a book that focuses less on the big life events, skating over births, deaths, marriage and even elections, and instead trains a lens on contrasting ways of life, from small town to big house. It is grounded in the emotions of the protagonist. There is little sense of beginning, middle and end; rather several windows into a journey on which Alice strives for peace and equilibrium. There is a sense of lack of fulfilment on behalf of Alice, a life subsumed by her gregarious and charming husband. But the story is ultimately one of love and devotion, and not just from Alice. The reader finds themself satisfied that Charlie himself is in no doubt as to the qualities of his wife that render her his superior in many ways. “All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power” Alice’s thought is one of my favourite lines in the book. It represents how a wife’s love is unerring in the face of character flaws, but the regard of the public for their elected officials is fickle. While a wife not only remembers the early hedonistic days of a relationship, but uses the memories to ride out the difficult times, the general public have short memories, conveniently forgetting the early promise shown by their leaders, and that it was their vote that put them in power.

The book is actually a little concealed representation of the life of Laura Bush, wife of George “Dubya”. Given the numerous sex scenes described in the book it might be best to scrub that fact for your mind. The childhood accident, liberal views and antipathy towards publicity are all true of the real life First Lady. I haven’t read Laura Bush’s official memoir, but it is by all accounts pretty dull, and I can’t help think that with Sittenfeld’s astute emotional insight, American Wife might almost be a more true life reflection of life married to Dubya. The fictional Charlie Blackwell is certainly slightly more endearing than the true life figure.

Having finally carved out some time to read this book, I found it difficult to make time for anything else. I reluctantly conducted the bare minimum of parenting activities, feeling instinctively that the sight of me engrossed in a book was a far better life lesson than me pretending to be a shop keeper.

This book has been out a good three years already, what can I say? I’m a pioneer. I expect most of you have already read it. If you haven’t, you definitely should. It will almost certainly be in your local library. I can’t wait till I have time to read another book. Maybe next year!