If really pressed, Owl will mumble she wasn’t a fan of the Bush administration because none of her friends were, and ever since Obama moved into office, Owl has been filled with worry. The president! Is he getting enough sleep? Does he need a vacation? What if he spaces out during a meeting? Owl spaces out during meetings all the time, but she makes up for it by pestering her coworker for a briefing and suffering mild pangs of guilt. If Obama spaces out during a meeting, millions of Americans suffer.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife is loosely based on Laura Bush’s life, and it deals with exactly the sorts of political questions Owl worries about—in other words, what is it like to be first lady?
For Alice Lindgren, habitual people-pleaser and bibliophile, it means struggle, often times an internal one that she can not share with anyone including her husband, especially her husband.
Alice never expected or wanted to be first lady, she is a victim of circumstance. Circumstance and love, because part of staying within her marriage means allowing her husband to go after his dreams even if they are not precisely her own dreams.
Unlike Lee Fiora in Prep, Alice is completely likeable protagonist, someone who has the ability to read people, someone whose desire to please is so great she can act on what she reads, but someone who will, when push comes to shove, do the right thing even if it means upsetting her nearest and dearest—the worst nightmare of any people pleaser.
Sittenfeld starts Alice’s story in her childhood and dumps in a heaping tablespoon of trauma drama. Normally Owl would not be a fan, but Sittenfeld is A) following the trajectory of Laura Bush’s life and B) quickly kaleidoscopes outwards to the really interesting events that form a person’s character, in other words, the mundane.
American Wife focuses heavily on the mundane, that is to say on the ordinary events that fill most lives: living with in-laws, raising children, dealing with your spouse. However, Sittenfeld knows how a single dinner party can be fraught with enough emotional tension to fill a movie, how much venom can be injected into the politest catch phrases. When Alice takes her housekeeper to see a play, it isn’t just about going to a play, there’s a commentary on racism and classism, how little and how much power an individual has to change someone else’s life.
Sittenfeld fills each of these events with nuggets of wisdom that linger in the reader’s mind long after they’ve finished the book. Ah, yes, that! I’ve felt that. Even when she ventures into the extraordinary (living at the White House), what she must have used her imagination to flesh out, Sittenfeld’s insight rings true:
The part about being famous that nobody who hasn’t been famous can understand is the criticism. Sure, sticks and stones and all of that, but the fact is that many people have probably wished at least once or twice that someone would be completely honest with them. How does this dress or this haircut really look? What do you truly think of my wife or my son, the house I built, the memo I wrote, the cake I baked?
In reality they don’t want to know. What they want is to be complimented and for the compliments to be completely honest; they want all-encompassing affirmation that’s also true. That isn’t how unvarnished opinions work. People’s unvarnished opinions are devastating…
With that kind of incisive analysis, Sittenfeld could have had an alternate career as a highly successful therapist. Thank God she decided to write.
American Wife is also the story of a marriage, which is refreshing because most books are about the process of getting married and then end by going ‘they lived happily ever after, kthanxbye.’ After all, post-marriage is when you get to figure out, oh man, the spouse’s feet really smell—and then you have to deal because you can’t divorce someone just for having smelly feet.
American Wife is full of smelly feet moments, full of give and takes, compromises and then compromising compromises with maintaining a sense of self, a reminder that while the first lady and her husband maybe the voice and face of America, first and foremost, they are just—like you and me—ordinary human beings.
This may not be comforting, but it will certainly change the way you read the newspaper.