After reading review after review of Sittenfeld’s novel as well as seeing show up on many “best of 2008” lists, I decided to give American Wife a try. American Wife is about librarin Alice Lindgren, her life growing up in Riley, Wisconsin and how she ends up in the White House as the First Lady and the wife of a charming, immature, aimless yet ambitious son of a politically-prominent Midwestern family. If you think the story sounds a tad familiar, it is.
American Wife is Sittenfeld’s fictitious attempt to try to solve the mystery that is Laura Bush. I think many of us have wondered about how this literate, book-loving former librarian ended up with George W. They are two seemingly very different people. We’ve wondered how she could sit back while her husband presumably tried to attack and dismantle programs and laws she held dear. By not saying anything, by not publicly disagreeing or possibly privately disagreeing, was she as culpable as he for the state of the nation during and after his 8 years as president?
After reading Sittenfeld’s novel, I’m not sure if I feel any closer to understanding Laura Bush or Alice Lindgren. Ultimately, I found the book and its attempted explanations unsatisfying. Honestly, why does Alice love Charlie? You could argue that opposites attract and that sort of thing, but I didn’t believe their love. Sittenfeld’s Alice is rather cold. Sittenfeld uses an adolescent tragedy to attempt to explain why Alice feels unworthy and undeserving of anything good in her life, but it rings hollow. With as much guilt and blame that Alice carries with her, I almost expected her to wear a hair shirt and flagellate herself. She seems to float through her life. It doesn’t help that Sittenfeld’s Alice ends up telling you a lot of the exposition as the book jumps forward in time. That only adds to the cold, detached feeling one gets from Alice/Laura.
It was an interesting experiment for Sittenfeld: take an intriguing first lady to whom everyone attributes intelligence, reason, calmness and try to figure out who she is and how she could do…nothing. Maybe that’s why the novel feels so cold. One has the visual of Sittenfeld nailing Alice to a piece of felt like some sort of insect and studying her, testing her, trying to explain her actions. Truthfully, the parts of the book before Alice’s husband becomes president are the best parts. Once Alice becomes First Lady, the story seems too contrived, too political. Sittenfeld is trying too hard.
I wasn’t a big fan of Sittenfeld’s previous heralded novel Prep, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at my tepid reaction to this novel. Perhaps Laura/Alice has the last laugh in remaining an enigma.