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American Wife: A Novel Hardcover – September 2, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Sittenfeld tracks, in her uneven third novel, the life of bookish, naïve Alice Lindgren and the trajectory that lands her in the White House as first lady. Charlie Blackwell, her boyishly charming rake of a husband, whose background of Ivy League privilege, penchant for booze and partying, contempt for the news and habit of making flubs when speaking off the cuff, bears more than a passing resemblance to the current president (though the Blackwells hail from Wisconsin, not Texas). Sittenfeld shines early in her portrayal of Alice's coming-of-age in Riley, Wis., living with her parents and her mildly eccentric grandmother. A car accident in her teens results in the death of her first crush, which haunts Alice even as she later falls for Charlie and becomes overwhelmed by his family's private summer compound and exclusive country club membership. Once the author leaves the realm of pure fiction, however, and has the first couple deal with his being ostracized as a president who favors an increasingly unpopular war, the book quickly loses its panache and sputters to a weak conclusion that doesn't live up to the fine storytelling that precedes it. (Sept.)
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From The New Yorker
In her third novel, Sittenfeld offers a thinly veiled account (Wisconsin, not Texas) of the life of Laura Bush, in the story of Alice Lindgren, who marries Charlie Blackwell, the ne'er-do-well son of a political dynasty who becomes President. The early chapters, in which Sittenfeld depicts an innocent childhood and adolescence disrupted by tragedy, are the most compelling. As the book progresses to more recent and familiar events, she has difficulty enlivening the ins and outs of electioneering and policymaking. The object of Sittenfeld's fascination is the seeming incongruity between Alice's liberal sympathies and her bookish intellect and Charlie's conservative nature and general insouciance. Neither character is very likable—Alice weak-willed and martyrlike, Charlie unbearably self-centered—but the novel, Sittenfeld's most fully realized yet, artfully evokes the painful reverberations of the past.
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I have to say I often found this book uncomfortable to read. Mainly because I found myself relating to the character of Alice quite a lot. So even when she was making decisions that I wouldn't necessarily have made, I understood them. Needless to say this was rather jarring for a dyed-in-the-wool liberal to find herself relating to a character's decision to marry the literary incarnation of GWB. Toward the end of book, which details their years in the White House, I found Alice's ruminations on fame to be a little tedious. I only need to be told so many times how few people you can really trust and how people think they own you because you are famous. I got it. Otherwise, I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who's willing to accept that people with other political views are just people and not the actual devil.
Another reviewer mentioned loving the sections when Alice spends time with the Blackwells, and those are my favorite sections as well. I never thought much about George Bush or Laura when they were in the White House - not that I didn't think much of them, just didn't think of them at all. Now, as a result of reading this book, I have a whole new view of Laura and the (ex)President, loosely based or not, I feel like they are friends of mine. Strange how a well-written novel can do that. I can't stop thinking about the book and now have that sinking feeling in my stomach because I know I can't revisit them each day to learn more. Best book I've read in a good long while.
Along with Prep, this is another of Sittenfeld's books I would highly recommend.