Book Of The Week

August 30th, 2008at 12:46pm Posted by Eli

“American Wife,” by Curtis Sittenfeld:

The “American wife” of Sittenfeld’s new novel, conspicuously modeled after the life of Laura Bush as recorded in Ann Gerhart’s biography “The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush” (2004), is a fictitious first lady named Alice Blackwell, née Lindgren, a Wisconsin-born former grade school teacher and librarian who comes belatedly to realize, in middle age, at the height of the Iraq war that her aggressively militant president-husband has initiated and stubbornly continues to defend, that she has compromised her youthful liberal ideals: “I lead a life in opposition to itself.”

(…)

An idealistic grammar-school librarian of 31 when she is introduced to Charlie Blackwell and finds herself vigorously courted by him — as, she will later learn, “marriage material for a rising star of the Republican Party” — Alice is initially overwhelmed by the crude, bullying, overbearing wealthy Blackwell clan into which it seems to be her destiny to marry: “It came to me so naturally, such a casual reaction — I hate it here,” Alice thinks miserably as a houseguest at her fiancé’s family’s summer home in northern Wisconsin, a kind of nightmare boot camp where outsiders like Alice are initiated into the Blackwells’ tight-knit, fiercely loyal way of life. The mystery of Alice’s life — as it is the prevailing mystery of Laura Bush’s life, seen from the outside — is the wife’s seemingly unquestioned allegiance to a husband with values very different from her own, if not in mockery of her own. From the start, though attracted to Charlie Blackwell as a genial, charming presence, Alice also recognizes him as “churlish,” a “spoiled lightweight,” “undeniably handsome, but . . . cocky in a way I didn’t like,” shallow, egotistical, “some sort of dimwit,” an “aspiring politician from a smug and ribald family, . . . a man who basically . . . did not hold a job” and who will demand of her an unswerving devotion to his efforts: “Alice, loyalty is everything to my family. There’s nothing more important. Someone insults a Blackwell, and that’s it. . . . I don’t try to convince people. I cut them off.”

Here in embryo is the right-wing Republican’s chilling partisan-political strategy, which is repellant to Alice even as — seemingly helplessly, with a female sort of acquiescence in her fate — she acknowledges feeling a “sprawling, enormous happiness” with him that sweeps all rational doubts aside: Charlie “was all breeziness and good cheer; when I was talking to him, the world did not seem like such a complicated place.” Yet more pointedly, as the first lady thinks well into the president’s second term: Charlie “always reminds me . . . of an actor going onstage, an insurance salesman or perhaps the owner of the hardware store who landed the starring role in the community-theater production of ‘The Music Man.’ Oh, how I want to protect him! Oh, the outlandishness of our lives, familiar now and routine, but still so deeply strange. ‘I love you, too,’ I say.”

Though “American Wife” is respectful of the first lady, its portrait of the president is rather more mixed, cartoonish: chilling, too, in its combination of steely indifference to opposing political viewpoints and crude frat-boy humor: ” ‘See, that’s what makes America great — room for all kinds of opposing viewpoints,’ ” Charlie says to Alice. She continues: “I can tell Charlie’s grinning, then I hear an unmistakable noise, a bubbly blurt of sound, and I know he’s just broken wind. Though I’ve told him it’s inconsiderate, I think he does it as much as possible in front of his agents. He’ll say, ‘They think it’s hilarious when the leader of the free world toots his own horn!’ ”

(…)

If there is an American gothic tale secreted within “American Wife,” it’s one of unconscionable, even criminal behavior cloaked in the reassuring tones of the domestic; political tragedy reduced to the terms of situation comedy, in this way nullified, erased. How to take Charlie Blackwell seriously as a purveyor of evil? We can’t, not as we see him through his wife’s indulgent eyes smiling “as he does when he’s broken wind particularly loudly, as if he’s half sheepish and half pleased with himself.” The ideal American wife can only retreat into a kind of female solace of opacity: “For now I will say nothing; amid the glaring exposure, there must remain secrets that are mine alone.”

Intriguing… and creepy.  Sittenfeld has clearly been paying attention.

Entry Filed under: Books,Bush


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