Tuesday, July 31, 2018

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

This novel is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush.  Alice Blackwell is the First Lady of the United States; her husband, Charlie, having won his first term as President in one of the closest elections ever in 2000.  The first chapter and the end of the book describe Alice's time as First Lady - and in particular the differences in her political views from those of her husband.

However, the more interesting middle of the book tells us about Alice's childhood, young adulthood, courtship, marriage and motherhood.  She was born into a middle class family in a small town in Wisconsin.  Her father was a bank manager and her mother a homemaker.  Her paternal grandmother, having been widowed at a young age, lives with the family and is an enormous influence on young Alice.  In particular it is she who introduces her to books and nurtures her love of reading.  The grandmother is a true character and one of my favourites in the book - she also supports Alice through a tragedy that occurs when she is 17 and which haunts and shapes her entire life.  While I won't give away what happens, part of this tragedy is based on actual events in Laura Bush's life.

Alice moves to Milwaukee and studies first to be a teacher and then a librarian.  She has a true gift for working with young children.  But when she meets Charlie she is swept off her feet and they marry within 6 months.  An only child she is somewhat overwhelmed by Charlie's large family - his parents and three older brothers and their spouses and children (again based on the Bush family).  She is also intimidated by their wealth and political influence - his father had been a governor, his brother is a congressman.

Charlie is the pampered drifter in the family - shortly after his marriage he makes an unsuccessful run for congress.  After losing, and turning 40, he sort of works for his family's meat business, but mostly drinks and has fun.  A crisis in their marriage leads to him finding religion.  And then he also buys the Milwaukee baseball team of which he becomes the general manager (sound familiar?).  It is after finding some success here that he successfully runs for Governor and then President.

Alice's adult relationships with Charlie's family, her childhood friend, Dena, the long time maid of Charlie's family as well as her family and her sister-in-law, Jade, are also interesting.  Though of course the most interesting and realistic relationship portrayed is her marriage.

I found this book to be well written, interesting and not too political despite its subjects.  I recommend it.

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