Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, American Wife, based on the life of Laura Bush, and sympathetic to her political non-choices, has been getting attention alongside the self-exonerating memoirs and withering insider analyses piling up in the final weeks of the Bush presidency. In its positive assessment of the couple’s marriage (fictionally presented as healthy, affectionate and hot), its willingness to leave ethical issues open to interpretation, and its warnings of the gap between the public and the private person, American Wife is being contrasted with the Oliver Stone movie, W., in which Bush is portrayed by Josh Brolin as a drunken buffoon who turns his life around, becoming a sober, powerful and born-again buffoon. Sittenfeld, a Democrat and a liberal, may be doing more to humanise the Bush administration than all the press secretaries, publicists, apologists and spinners in the White House itself.
Defending W, however, does not appear to have been the intention of the author. Several years ago, Sittenfeld wrote a hyperbolic essay for Salon.com that set out the paradox of her contempt for George Bush (whose policies she regarded as ‘misguided and perhaps evil’) and her love for Laura Bush: ‘There is no public figure I admire more.’ She attributed her readiness ‘to share my love for Laura with the world’ to Ann Gerhart’s biography The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush (2004). In Sittenfeld’s view, Gerhart, a reporter for the Washington Post, portrayed her subject as smart, curious, sincere, down-to-earth and compassionate. But Sittenfeld had been a fan of Laura Bush before she read Gerhart’s book, tracing her fascination to a Vogue profile in June 2001, which stressed the First Lady’s lack of pretension and disdain for fashion, and to a New York Times article in October 2002 that quoted respectful comments by American writers and historians, including Justin Kaplan and David Levering Lewis, who had participated in literary gatherings Mrs Bush initiated at the White House. Sittenfeld identified strongly with the portrayal of Laura Bush as a ‘voracious reader of fiction’, whose favourite novel was The Brothers Karamazov. And as a writer, she found the facts of Bush’s life material for ‘a great novel’. ‘Big, dramatic things have happened to her, certain themes have recurred, and she is such an easy heroine to root for – smart and nice but just flawed enough (she still sneaks cigarettes!) to remain likeable.’
It’s hard to know just what she was talking about here, and to be fair, she wrote the essay well before she decided to tackle a Bush-inspired novel herself. Laura Bush’s recorded personal life, though it has had its moments, seems strikingly devoid of both drama and flaws. When she was a teenager in West Texas, she was responsible for an automobile accident that killed a handsome high school classmate, possibly her secret crush. No one outside the family knows anything about the causes or effects of this tragic event, so one can speculate about guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, lifelong grief and lost love. But obviously the most dramatic thing that has happened to Laura Bush is her marriage. Everyone is curious about the inner lives of the publicly humiliated but loyal wives of philandering politicians – Hillary Clinton, Mary Archer, Silda Spitzer, Elizabeth Edwards – or the women married to disgraced or greedy politicians and who follow them into exile. George Bush, however, is intellectually incompetent rather than sexually unfaithful, politically destructive rather than personally dishonest, a failed president rather than a bad father. How does a smart, nice and likeable woman cope with such a situation? Does she oppose her husband? Does she stand by her man or leave him? How does she rationalise her choices? And is it possible to root for such a wife without defending her husband and his choices as well?
Sittenfeld has tried to solve the problem by using the First Lady’s biography as the basis for the cleverly plotted and skilfully constructed story of the fictional Alice Lindgren Blackwell. While acknowledging that Laura Bush has never openly expressed any differences with her husband, she invents a heroine who shares a number of Mrs Bush’s experiences but tells her own story about the moral conflicts, compromises and crises of her life. Alice Blackwell differs from Laura Bush in numerous superficial details: she grows up in Wisconsin rather than Texas, marries a graduate of Princeton rather than Yale, has one daughter rather than twins, and confesses to a secret facelift. More significantly, however, she asks herself in the novel’s prologue: ‘Have I made terrible mistakes?’ The book is structured as a series of flashbacks in which Alice reviews her life and actions to resolve this question, a question we have no reason to believe that Laura Bush has ever entertained.
At 17, Alice accidentally kills her first crush, Andrew Imhof, in a traumatic car crash. She loses her religious faith; she dreams of Andrew regularly for the rest of her life; and she internalises his memory as a lost standard of ideal romance: ‘Andrew died, I caused his death, and then, like a lover, I took him inside me.’ Out of guilt or shock at Andrew’s death, Alice sleeps with his oafish brother Pete, becomes pregnant, and lets her grandmother arrange an abortion – surely the cleanest, safest, most painless illegal abortion in contemporary literature, performed under anaesthesia by a woman doctor in Chicago. Although she has no regrets about the abortion, Alice is not drawn to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and gets through the decade without noticing that anything particularly revolutionary is going on in the world or the nation. She becomes a dedicated primary school teacher and librarian and only at the age of 31 – ancient by Midwest standards – marries brash Charlie Blackwell, the black sheep of a rich and prominent political family. Sittenfeld presents Alice as a woman who leads ‘a life in opposition to itself’, learning very young, perhaps from her parents, to conceal her real beliefs, desires, observations and values beneath a veil of compliance and convention. She keeps going to church. She discovers that her grandmother is a closet lesbian, and is in a long-time affair with the Chicago doctor, but keeps the secret to herself. From the reader’s perspective, she conceals her real self so thoroughly that it seems not to exist.
Indeed, by choosing to have Alice as the first-person narrator, Sittenfeld opts for the most cautious and discreet voice in her cast of characters, and sacrifices the opportunity to see her heroine from the perspective of a tougher-minded outsider, like the campaign staffer in Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, or a flawed, unreliable, but lively insider like one of the Blackwell clan. She has noted in an interview that in using the bland Alice as the narrator she wasn’t playing to her ‘strengths as writer’; but concluded that it was good to push herself ‘to write from the perspective of an optimistic and agreeable person’. Lacking an ironic observer within the novel, Sittenfeld supplies Alice with a cadre of literary doubles – truth-tellers who include her slutty best friend Dena Janaszewski, her blunt and bitchy mother-in-law Maj, and her crude but candid husband. Fun-loving Charlie, who likes fart jokes and doesn’t seem to have a real job, has so little in common with Alice that she wonders whether her attraction to his unembarrassed raunchiness and confident physicality signifies ‘an element of my own personality over which I had little control’. That element is sexual; Charlie is a terrific lover, reminiscent of Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy assuring Ellen Barkin that her bad luck in bed is about to change.
Even sexual luck runs out, however, when Charlie and Alice turn 40, and face major decisions about their lives. Charlie is trying to decide what to do with his energy and ambition. He wants to find his destiny and build his ‘legacy’, a concept Alice finds ridiculous: ‘His fixation with his legacy (I even grew to hate the word) I found intolerable. It seemed so indulgent, so silly, so male; I have never, ever heard a woman muse on her legacy, and I certainly have never heard a woman panic about it.’ This is the most explicitly feminist statement Alice ever makes, but as well as a judgment on Charlie’s ego and self-importance, it seems like a belated, half-conscious perception of her own narrow and restricted life. There’s no point in women musing on their legacy when they are financially dependent on their husbands, socialised to be accommodating to others and afraid of offending their families and friends. Charlie deals with his midlife crisis by buying a baseball team; Alice tries to deal with hers by making token gestures towards liberal activism and philanthropy. She takes the Blackwells’ elderly black maid, Miss Ruby, to a performance of The Seagull (the outraged Maj tells her that they have taken ‘superb care’ of Ruby for 45 years and that she should practise her benevolence elsewhere). Undaunted, Alice persuades Charlie to pay for the maid’s bright granddaughter to attend their daughter’s private school. She flatters herself that ‘being a reader . . . had given me the gifts of curiosity and sympathy,’ and a sophisticated awareness of the world, but comes across as prim and self-righteous, making a scene with Charlie when a snooping child finds his stash of Penthouse magazines, and congratulating herself on her subscription to the Economist.
A family trip to Charlie’s 20th class reunion at Princeton brings their conflicts to a head. Alice is scornful about Princeton’s ‘aggressively quaint, unbecomingly smug’ milieu; the extravagant reunion festivities, culminating in a gigantic parade, remind her ‘of the Blackwell family, simultaneously impressive and self-regarding’. Angry about Charlie’s carousing, drinking and drug use, she retaliates by wandering off with one of his classmates and kissing him ‘hungrily’. Finally, she takes the enormous step of asking Charlie for a trial separation and moving out. After a few weeks, however, she realises she is bored and ill-equipped to support herself financially in the manner to which she has become accustomed. Although she has faced the awful possibility that even his own family thinks Charlie is a ‘dimwit’, that ‘my marriage was a sham, my husband a laughingstock,’ she concludes that she is better off being ‘propelled forward, given a sense of purpose, by my troublesome husband’, than on her own. Astonishingly, Charlie has a religious conversion, gives up drinking and dissipation, and decides to run for governor. Alice makes her bargain, returns to her marriage, and puts her scruples to rest. Considering the reasons she married Charlie Blackwell, she concludes that ‘we are each of us pathetic in one way or another and the trick is to marry a person whose patheticness you can tolerate.’
This would be soap opera if the two of them were not setting off, hand in hand, on the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Alice refuses to judge her husband: ‘Do I think he has been a dreadful president? I think the story is more complicated than people realise.’ She insists that she bears no responsibility for Charlie’s actions. Even when she confronts the horror of the invasion of Iraq and ‘what is happening in this country’, she confesses that she never actually voted for her husband, and blames the gullible Americans who did: ‘All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power.’ We are the co-dependents, the seduced partners, the true American ‘wives’, while she is an innocent and pathetic bystander. So what are the terrible mistakes Alice fears she has made? In an unconvincing final plot twist, Sittenfeld suggests that Alice’s past, her secret abortion, and her repressed liberal self – her ‘real’ self – erupt back into her life to destroy her bargain and compel her to speak out.
Most unconvincing overall is Sittenfeld’s view of Alice Blackwell as a serious and perceptive reader. While she name-drops classic novels such as Anna Karenina, Alice is mainly influenced by popular children’s literature and its messages of striving, uplift, self-sacrifice and optimism. Her favourite book is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964), a fable about a tree that sacrifices first its fruit, and then its leaves, branches and trunk to satisfy the demands and wishes of a beloved young boy. Alice’s identification with the tree – as an elementary school teacher she makes a papier-mâché statue of it which she keeps in her room for the rest of her life – can be read in more than one way. For some readers, The Giving Tree is a tale of selfless devotion; for others, the critic William May for example, it is a fable about ‘a compulsive giver who fatally bonds with a predatory taker’. Readers of American Wife will face a similar ambiguity. Is Alice a model spouse or a neurotic enabler whose weaknesses eventually break down her defences? And does this fictionalised version of the First Lady teach us anything about the real Laura Bush?