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3.5 out of 5 stars
American Wife: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)
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135 of 155 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon October 3, 2008
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
When I ordered this book, I didn't know that it was supposed to be based (loosely or otherwise) on Laura Bush. I ordered it because I am fascinated by what it would be like to be behind the doors of the real White House. (If you want a non-fiction view, I recommend:

America's First Families: An Inside View of 200 Years of Private Life in the White House (Lisa Drew Books)

I did find out that the book was loosely (?) based on Laura Bush's life prior to reading it. It is through that lens that I wound up forming my opinion on the book.

As a work of hypothetical fiction, the book was interesting and entertaining. You meet a lot of characters in the book -- particularly the early life of Alice -- that you wouldn't expect to meet in a midwest middle class traditional family and you catch a glimpse of that period that is outside the Kennedy "Camelot" rose-colored glasses. From that perspective, as a novel, it stretches your imagination and makes for a book that is "out of the ordinary".

However, knowing that it is based in part on the life of Laura Bush -- I think this really does a disservice to the book and to the woman. I don't have strong feelings about Laura Bush either way but by making this a work of fiction, you constantly find yourself wondering which parts were true and which ones were not. If everything was true, then you get a very unkind picture of the person who is Laura Bush. If much of it is untrue, then you feel sorry for Laura Bush for being "slandered" and the voyeurism into what should be very private events, feelings and thoughts for this very public person. You feel a little guilty even reading it.

I think the author would have been better off not trying to tie this novel to any particular person. That way, there would not be the "distraction" that you ultimately feel as you read trying to separate fact from fiction.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2009
Format: Paperback
This book started out so, so good, but then just degenerated into a bunch of diatribes that felt false, fake and set-up. Ostensibly based on the life of Laura Bush (although in a historical fiction kind of way), I found myself really enjoying the main character - be it the good, bad or whatever. She felt REAL. But then it just fell apart for me. It felt like the author set out to put in anything and everything that could have maybe happened (or had been "reported" to have happened) instead of remaining true to Laura/Alice. Sittenfeld spent the mid part of the book dealing with George's alcohol issue, but mostly in a tabloid kind of way. This is the way the rest of the book went. There was a paragraph that chronicled his rise from Governor to President. A paragraph. And while I realize this was about Laura, surely there could have been a better way to do this. It's a long book. There should have been a better transition, or time spent elsewhere that would have kept this reader's interest instead of dealing with the minutiae into details that, from all accounts, were not a big deal.

The ending was weak and didn't seem in character at all. Again, enjoyed the character development from the beginning, but it just felt like a chore about mid-way through. Not recommended.
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100 of 125 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Great summaries in the other reviews - I won't repeat those.

I loved the beginning and middle of this book. Loved Alice, her childhood, her growing up experiences, her family, her life as a single woman, her courtships, her experiences with the Blackwell family (these were my favorite sections), and her relationship with her husband, the future president. All of these things are plot lines that Sittenfeld wrote BRILLIANTLY.

When I finished reading this book, however, I was lukewarm about the ending. 2 weeks later, when I was still thinking about the book, I realized how fervently it had stuck with me, and have since decided that it was one of my favorites of 2008 so far.

Great work, Curtis. I praise your boldness and your talent for writing about women in a sometimes awkward and uncomfortable but always honest fashion. Definitely worth the read.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2009
Format: Paperback
I wish I had not known beforehand (and Sittenfeld's Acknowledgments at the end make it clear) that this book was inspired by biographies of Laura Bush. I knew relatively little about Laura Bush and googled an outline of her life. I found that in her teens she had accidentally killed a boy friend in a car crash, and when this episode appears early in this novel, it reinforced (and was obviously meant to reinforce) the parallel between Alice Lindgren and Laura Bush, even if a note at the beginning says that while Alice's husband and his parents are `recognizable', `all other characters [i.e. including Alice herself] in the novel are products of the author's imagination, as are the incidents concerning them'.

But, in view of the car accident which really did happen, it is hard not to ask oneself exactly what is invented and what is not. For example: did Laura Bush have a wise and lesbian grandmother? Did she have an abortion at the age of 17? Did her marriage nearly break up at one point? And there are some extensively described sexual scenes with three different men, which is not unusual these days in an ordinary novel; but if one associates them with Laura Bush (and can one help that?), they strike a voyeuristic note and are to my mind an impertinence.

The novel occasionally has unnecessarily detailed descriptions of clothes and of furniture, and there are quite a lot of episodes that are not in themselves particularly interesting or contribute to the story line. But the main characters are well developed and the main story line is compelling - so much so that the reservations I have expressed in the previous paragraph gradually faded, and I was truly absorbed to the very end of this very long book.

I know too little about Laura Bush to judge whether Alice is like her. Did Laura come from a Democratic family, was vaguely Democrat herself, but gave that up when she married the Republican George W Bush and became a loyal political wife? One can hardly not have an idea about Bush; so how convincing a likeness is Charlie Blackwell as being modelled on him? I would say `very much so': the boyish charm and grin, the virility, the passion for baseball, the heavy drinking, the political ambition, the family clannishness - they are all there; and when Alice's wise old grandmother comments that Charley's `ambition exceeds his talent', that is true of Bush also. The way Sittenfeld describes the behaviour of the clan to which Charlie belongs is quite brilliantly done, though I did not find Charley's parents as `recognizable' as Sittenfeld claims in her prefatory note: his father (who in the novel had never been President) is not well developed, and his mother, very much the matriarch, is a much more intimidating figure than what I think I know about the strong but rather comfortable Barbara Bush.

Charlie/George W duly becomes a born-again Christian and gives up alcohol. At this point we are five-sixth through the book, and so far most of it has been a prolonged and subtle dissection of the personal relationship between Laura and Charlie. Then it suddenly skips over the next 15 years or so - the years of his state governorship and then his first term as President - straight into his second term (though there will be occasional flash-backs to those intervening years). The focus of Alice's narration now changes, and we have interesting reflections of how an unassuming, relatively unpolitical, straightforward and honest woman has to adjust to being a First Lady - not only what it does to her private life, how she copes with the publicity and with the rat-pack of journalists, but also how, as a loyal wife of the President, she has to suppress her decent instincts in the face of the issues and cynical machinations of her husband's administration. She comes out of this reasonably well, though some people would not think so: there is a magnificent scene in which she is confronted by a 104 year old woman whom she has known in her youth and who taxes her for not speaking out forthrightly on the abortion issue. She loves her husband and has an affectionate understanding for his weaknesses as well as for his attractive qualities, and she is inclined to put much of the blame for his foreign policy onto the domination of Arnold Prouhet (the Dick Cheney figure) over a weaker and shallower personality (and it seems to me that Sittenfeld , too, may have this view of George W Bush). But at the end of the book she wrestles with her conscience: true, she was not the President; true, the American public elected him and not her; but should she not have done more to use her influence, at least to the extent of challenging his policies in private? In the end, in a moving passage, Alice takes a step which I wonder whether Laura Bush ever took.

If Alice is a true character portrait of Laura Bush, it explains why Laura Bush had a much higher popularity rating than her husband.
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51 of 68 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's nearly impossible to separate your feelings about "American Wife" and the character of Alice Blackwell from your feelings about the book's inspiration, Laura Bush. Although the book is probably at least 80% fiction, the parallels are impossible to ignore, and they naturally color every aspect of the reading experience. Every reader is going to bring in preconceptions - admiration, frustration, anger, pity, or just plain confusion - and expect this book to either confirm or explain what they think they know about our current first lady.

But while recognizing my own bias, I tried - I really tried - to be as objective as possible. In some places - particularly the first two parts of the book - it was easier than others. At other times, keeping an open mind became an almost exhaustive task. Nevertheless, it's one I'm glad to have undertaken. "American Wife" succeeds on both levels: as a standalone book about one woman's rather interesting life, and as a speculative character study about a women most of us will probably never truly understand.

Alice Blackwell is a study in contradictions. She's an intelligent women who goes out of her way to make sure she never has to think for herself. She's almost aggressively passive, a woman who seems to want to make as little impression on the world as possible, and yet one of her first acts as an independent adult is to take another human being's life in a car accident. She's a Democrat who marries into a staunchly political Republican family. You like her, but at the same time you veer between pitying her and wanting to smack her back to her senses. As such, she makes for a fascinating, but ultimately frustrating, main character.

The other main stand-in in "American Wife," of course, is Charlie Blackwell, the incompetent younger son who stumbles his way into Alice's heart and eventually the White House. Personally, I don't think Sittenfeld went far enough in drawing the parallels between Charlie and W., but maybe that's just me. We gain little insight into their relationship, and we never really know what they see in each other (except perhaps desperation on Alice's part - unmarried into her 30s, you can't escape the idea that she honestly feels she can't do any better). Their daughter Ella is likewise obtuse - after a jump from Ella at age 8 to age 28, we might as well be looking at a complete stranger in the final quarter of the book.

The characters who do stand out are the bit players in Alice's life, those who never became public figures and are thus wholly new to us. Chief among these is her grandmother Emilie. I would have happily read an entire book about this woman's life - calling a feisty older woman a "firecracker" may be a cliché, but here it's entirely appropriate. She's a scream, and the book brightened immensely whenever she made an appearance. Alice's childhood friend Dena undergoes several metamorphoses over the course of the book, finally redeeming herself in the final chapters in a quietly satisfying way.

I truly enjoyed "American Wife" as a novel. As a character study, it probably raised more questions than it answered; moreover, I worry that readers will become too obsessed with drawing parallels and wondering where the line between fact and fiction has been drawn. Sittenfeld has done a marvelous job creating a complex, complicated protagonist and inviting us to attempt an answer to that question, "What was she thinking?"
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The problem with "American Wife," the lauded, pseudo-biography of first lady Laura Bush, is that if you take away the novel's gimmick, you're left with a dated and slightly irrelevant tale of an emotionally frustrated housewife's "life in opposition to itself." The story's been told numerous times, most often about fifty years ago and most eloquently (and without the explicit sex scenes) by short story writer Richard Yates and in Evan S. Connell's quietly devastating "Mrs. Bridge." To be sure, Curtis Sittenfeld nails the period details in "American Wife" as she traces the formative years of the Laura Bush stand-in, Alice Lindgren, growing up in Wisconsin in the 1950s and `60s. And she hits the bull's-eye with the character-caricature of Charlie Blackwell, the George W. Bush-inspired man whose "ambitions exceed his talent." But, like Alice's life and her dreams, the novel loses momentum and hits a dead end in the middle passages that trace Charlie's rise to power and Alice's reluctant acceptance of her life as a political sidekick.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2009
Format: Kindle Edition
I'm at page 300 (250 more pages to go) and am a male.

This was on the NY TIMES Top 100 books of the year 2008 and had received rave reviews. I started and struggled and was gobsmacked by the useless detail in the narrative (which just drags this whole book down). The story is not well written and I'm wondering if I can even finish it - it's pretty boring.

So with regard to the title of my review? - If you enjoy scatological detail in your novels (including our heroine wiping up clots of her crap in the toilet!), then this is for you.

I'm a guy and I wondered if I was missing something because it seems to be a woman's book - but then I remember reading "Memoirs of a Geisha" and being transported. Why? because the language of that book was mesmerizing.

Curtis Sittenfeld is just a terrible writer - based on what I've read so far. I've read better Jackie Collins.
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63 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I received the book American Wife as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. It is the latest novel by Prep: A Novel author Curtis Sittenfeld and draws on the life of Laura Bush for much of the formation of the main characters and events. It is a long and detailed story of how a reserved (but not conservative), intelligent woman ended up the wife of the President of the United States.

The books starts off strong with a compelling description of teenage life in the early 1960s in middle America. I was drawn in by the dramatic events of most of the first part and quite interested to see how these events would shape and drive this young woman -- as I was sure they would.

I will admit I was not a big fan of Prep. I wanted very much to like it and by the description it sounded very much like a book I would definitely like, but it had one fatal flaw -- the main character. I had no empathy or even sympathy for her. American Wife suffers from the same problem. I can't find many reasons to warm up to Alice. She's so reserved and so rigid and so downright prissy that I just couldn't care about her. I can't help thinking that Ms. Sittenfeld was so afraid of having her novel referred to as "chick lit" that she stripped out all the humor, all the passion and all the foibles of Alice -- in other words all the things that make us root for the women who star in all those "chick lit" novels. If I could have cared about Alice more, and rooted for her then this story might have been a lot more human.

Alice never really overcomes, she never really shows passion and she doesn't even stand behind her husband or her own convictions. So, for me, the book, like Alice herself, slowly stagnates after the first part. If Alice had been passionate about her husband, rather than accepting, had thrown herself into supporting him, or thrown herself into motherhood or really anything it would have been a much more interesting story. Instead we ended up with story of how a rather stilted woman came to be. For Laura Bush's sake I hope the similarities between her life and Alice's are limited to the major events only.
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19 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2009
Format: Paperback
After reading this book, I've decided that things like the NY Times Book Review is sort of like the literary equilvalent of the Billboard Charts. It seems more and more these days, "sexy", "easy" artists are the most popular. A fiction book based on the life of Laura Bush will draw readers in much like a flashy pop video. But when you really look (or read), you realize it's not much more than a cotton candy trying to convince ou that it's good for you. I read "Prep" by Sittenfeld and enjoyed it; "The Man of My Dreams," not so much. I gave "American Wife" a chance because I too was drawn in by the luster of it all. But I was no more then 20 pages in when I realized Alice/Laura was the same character as the main characters in Prep & Man (I can't remember either of their names)--neurotic, overly focused on minute details that bogs down the narrative, obsessed with sex (seriously, were all these sex scenes necessary??) I really cannot believe how well-reviewed this book was. I guess, just like in the music world, you have to look past the fanfare to find the artists with real substance.
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49 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on September 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Let's get this out of the way up front: If AMERICAN WIFE were nothing more than a barely disguised attempt to imagine and illuminate the inner life of Laura Bush, it might be entertaining in a titillating sort of way, but hardly worth more attention than a quickly forgotten magazine profile. In truth, Curtis Sittenfeld's third novel is a rich and arresting portrait of an enduring marriage, of the inevitable compromises necessary to reach that longevity, and of the unremitting demands of public life and the price of fame.

Sittenfeld's protagonist, Alice Lindgren, is born in a small Wisconsin town in 1946, the only child of a bank manager and a housewife. Her early years are unremarkable until a September night in 1963 when the car she's driving on the way to a party collides with one driven by Andrew Imhof, a classmate with whom she's moving toward a relationship. Andrew is killed, and the specter of his loss shadows Alice's waking (and dreaming) life.

Alice falls into a relationship with Andrew's older brother, Pete, and when she becomes pregnant, her grandmother takes her to Chicago for an abortion --- a decision that plays a central role in the novel's denouement.

Sittenfeld fast forwards to Madison, Wisconsin in 1977, where Alice contentedly works as an elementary school librarian and dreams about buying a house. During a summer when she's spending most of her time creating papier-mâchécharacters to decorate the library, she meets Charlie Blackwell, "someone who found his own flaws endearing and thus concealed nothing," at a backyard barbecue. Charlie is the youngest of four sons of Harold and Priscilla (nicknamed "Maj," short for "Majesty") Blackwell. Harold is a former governor of Wisconsin and unsuccessful candidate for president in 1968, and the family owns a prosperous meatpacking business. Two of Charlie's brothers work alongside him in the business, while one serves in Congress. But, as Charlie puts it, "Being a Blackwell is my full-time job."

At first, Alice --- a registered Democrat with liberal political sympathies --- is put off ("money and Republicans and sausage did not strike me as a particularly tempting combination."). But within six weeks, she and Charlie are engaged, and six weeks later they're married. On the surface it's an unlikely match: Alice is bright, self-aware and witty, an inveterate reader of serious novelists like Bellow and Nabokov, while Charlie prefers to spend his evenings with a beer and pretzels, stretched out on the couch watching a baseball game. The mystery of romantic love is on display here in all its oddity.

Charlie's first foray into electoral politics as a candidate for Congress in 1978 results in a crushing defeat, and he retreats philosophically into the family business and life of a prosperous Milwaukee suburbanite. Ten years later, he's a disgruntled 42-year-old, obsessed (to Alice's annoyance) by his "legacy." An offer to become a part owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and the public face of the team as its managing partner appears it may be enough to relieve his lethargy. But before long, he's spending more of his time in increasingly frequent drinking bouts and behavioral lapses that move Alice to threaten divorce, especially after they attend a disastrous 20th reunion of Charlie's Princeton class. Alice's ultimatum abruptly ends Charlie's drinking, and he undergoes a religious conversion at the hands of an evangelical preacher, Reverend Randy. Soon, he is elected governor of Wisconsin and is on the fast track to the White House. Still, Alice is ambivalent: "I wanted Charlie to win the election," she comments wryly, "but I didn't want him to be president."

The final quarter of the book is set in June 2007. Blackwell, nearing the end of his second term, presides over an unpopular Middle East war, while trying to gain Supreme Court confirmation of a staunchly anti-abortion female judge. Alice, pro-choice and skeptical about the war, must face the contradictions in her public and interior lives --- and she does so in a moving and completely authentic fashion.

The well-known elements of the Bush story all are here, subtly altered to present them in a fresh and original way. But no writer, even one as adept as Curtis Sittenfeld, will ever unearth anything approaching the objective truth of George and Laura Bush's relationship. What she has done, and what elevates this book to the realm of true art, is to create a nuanced portrait of how it feels to be the wife of a major political figure, or indeed any celebrity. Fulfilling Hemingway's definition of a good story, AMERICAN WIFE feels "more true than what really happened." That's the highest compliment one can pay to this thoroughly absorbing novel.

--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
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