Friday, September 25, 2009

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

I read voraciously, yet it is rare for me to enjoy a book so thoroughly as I enjoyed this one (this blog does not contain reviews of all the books I read; only the ones I consider notable for some reason).

Sittenfeld, after reading a biography of Laura Bush, realized that the former first lady is a complicated person, an interesting person. Her life seems like a novel. So she decided to write it. Yes, it’s fiction, but many of the basic elements of Laura Bush’s life are also in the life of the fictional Alice Lindgren of Wisconsin. By creating this character Sittenfeld has license to explore Alice’s thoughts, her emotions, her character, to bring her alive yet acknowledge, in the end, that she does not really exist.

The parallels are so close as to suggest that Sittenfeld is sorting through events in the Bushes’ lives and trying to create character from the bits and pieces she knows of the individuals. It would be presumptuous to write a biography, inserting the answers, the whys throughout, without even meeting the subjects. But the whys are what are so interesting. Who is Laura Bush and why did she behave as she did in the Bush White house? What caused her to marry George W. Bush?

More than a story of the presidential years, though, this is an investigation into love, and, delightful to me personally, a close look at what it means to grow up in the upper Midwest in the middle of the 20th century. I was born the same year Alice was and I was born in the midwest - Upper Michigan instead of Wisconsin. So much of what Alice experiences, how she reacts, how she feels, reflects how I have felt and experienced life myself much of the time. I think Sittenfeld nailed it, at least what it is like to be a bookish intelligent midwesterner with an open mind. Thus even though we are not alike I was able to understand how she acted, how she felt. Her life makes sense, her actions make sense.

There is much insight in here, in the ways our upbringings might cause us to see others very differently. For example, Alice acknowledges her own deep feelings and sense of obligation towards those in need, yet she can understand and accept that those raised in a privileged household, where they are kept effectively insulated from others, might not have the capacity to care in the same way. She does not blame them, but rather asserts her right to feel differently.

Another interesting insight is in her sense of obligation in relation to her position in the world. She finds herself occupying a position of influence - wife of the president - and realizes that with such privilege comes a greater burden: how much should she do to right injustices, to relieve suffering? How much can she do? What is her responsibility?

The novel offers an answer to the question, how can you love somebody with whom you so often disagree? Sometimes love has nothing to do with agreement; love may not be magic but its elements in this case may be reasonably defined. Alice’s quiet, thoughtful character is in stark contrast to that of Charlie Blackwell, the stand-in for George W. Bush. She is drawn to his essential acceptance of his own flaws - what you see is what you get. And to the fun he represents, that she craves. The story also explains how others might be drawn similarly to a candidate who speaks as plainly as they do.

The development of Charlie’s character is fully as interesting as Alice’s. We see how he comes to value loyalty over truth; how he can see disagreement as almost traitorous. We see how the clannish nature of his family provides a cushion against the world, and a history to live up to, a competition to join. We see, too, how being part of an Ivy League school extends that family, adds some sort of validity to a certain way of thinking.

One recurrent theme comes from mention of the children’s novel The Giving Tree. It is Alice’s favorite children’s book and she reads it in many places to many children. The story of The Giving Tree is of a little boy and a tree. The tree provides everything it can for the boy for his whole life and at the end provides a place to rest and is happy to do it. Did Alice represent the Giving Tree? Did she gladly give of herself to the man that she loved?

It’s a beautifully-written novel with complex, believable and sympathetic characters. Even without the parallels to recent history it stands tall.