This book has been on my horizon for a while. Curtis Sittenfeld’s first novel, Prep, was one of my favorites in high school. I read through the first 40 pages or so of American Wife while standing at the Nook desk at B&N last summer (instead of selling Nooks…), and while it wasn’t exactly thrilling, I felt like it was definitely something I wanted to pick up again in the future. I found a copy of it at one of the many booksales I scour, and put it on my shelf for a rainy day. It finally happened when I was scanning the audio book selection at the library to keep me entertained and awake while trying to drive 5 hours to Kirksville without cruise control last month. And entertained I was.
When I got home from the trip and flipped through the pages of the book to find my place, I was shocked to discover that I had only listened to about 150 pages. It felt like such a huge portion of the story had taken place already. I was thoroughly hooked in a way that felt like we were reaching a climax. And yet, it had barely begun.
For those of you who haven’t heard of this book or the controversy that goes along with it, let me explain. Baaaaasically, Sittenfeld presents a fictionalized biography of First Lady Laura Bush’s life, starting with her childhood and ending with Bush’s lame duck years circa 2006-07ish. Although the author claims that only about 15 percent of the text is biographical and that she knows nothing more of the Bush family than any other avid biography reader, it’s hard to separate reality from fiction in this text, and ultimately, I finished the book feeling like I knew the real Laura Bush, not just the fictional character Alice Blackwell. And it frightened me a little. Because I could 100 percent see myself in her.
Let’s start with the most obvious similarities. Alice/Laura is an avid reader, who often finds herself lost in stories in a real and meaningful way. Duh. Me too. Alice/Laura was an elementary school librarian before becoming a stay-at-home mom. I am studying to be an elementary school librarian and would love to stay at home at least while my children are little. Alice/Laura was extremely independent, living alone for more than a decade before marrying. I am a very independent person about to move into my own apartment and although I’m only 23, this later marriage age doesn’t seem unrealistic to me. Alice/Laura is a naturally-inclined liberal, although doesn’t care much for politics and thus prefers to listen rather than contribute to political conversation. Me to a tee. Besides these obvious similarities, however, are the more subtle things. Like the way Alice broaches confrontation (hesitantly and only when necessary), or her relatively high guilt complex. Or her constant inner monologue that is always questioning how others are feeling, reacting, understanding. Or how her quick fall into love with this boisterous, confident politician’s son seemed like something that could easily happen to me, however illogical it seems. Or how much she finds herself compromising for the sake of her relationship, believing that a life with him is the only thing better than a life without him.
Although I think Alice Blackwell (and probably Laura Bush) is more level-headed than I’ll ever be, time and time again while reading this story, I found myself thinking, THIS IS EXACTLY HOW I THINK AND ACT. I’M GONNA GROW UP TO BE LAURA BUSH.
So don’t be surprised when in 20-30 years you see me holding a bible, swearing in the President of the United States. Because I’m pretty sure that’s what’s gonna happen.
Elegantly written, and spurred on by the intrigue of the first lady’s behind-the-scenes life, this book captured me in a way that hasn’t been done in a while.