Nobody Wants to Be First Lady

The life of a first lady is sad, claustrophobic. She is held in check by her husband’s policies, his politics, the stultifying bureaucracy that surrounds them. She can’t hold a real job; she’s too famous for that, but she’s famous not because she’s done something but because she’s attached to the guy who did. American Wife hits shelves with a lot of hype, and one irresistible hook: It’s the fictionalized story of Laura Bush.

American Wife follows Alice Lindgren, a typical middle-class only child in a small town in Wisconsin, who eventually becomes Alice Blackwell, married to Charlie Blackwell, the 43rd President of the United States. It’s unmistakable that Alice and Charlie Blackwell are the alter egos of Laura and George Bush: they are the same age (although their individual birthdays are different), their courtship patterns follow the same course, she is a children’s librarian, he’s a rich playboy bopping around when they meet at a BBQ…I found the parallels between the characters and their real-life counterparts fun. If you know current events, the last chapter alone is very illuminating. But it’s also exciting to realize you spot Karl Rove’s alter ego before he’s Karl Rove, chuckle that Charlie ran as a “tolerant traditionalist” in 2000, that that election hinged on Florida.

Author Curtis Sittenfeld has said that she always thought that Laura Bush’s story would make a great novel; Laura herself has pointed out that it was inevitable her and George would get together, because she jokes, they were the last single people in their extended social circle, both in their early 30s when they got together.

The roots of this novel are seen in Sittenfeld’s 2004 article for Salon, in which she elucidates her admiration for Laura, ” She’s smart and curious about the world. She’s sincere and down-to-earth and compassionate. She’s both confident and modest, she knows who she is, and she doesn’t try to prove anything. I suspect the reason so many people I know believe her to be fake is that she doesn’t aggressively demonstrate her authenticity.”

The first 150 pages or so of the novel are the best, moving briskly and captivatingly. Like her counterpart, Alice is in a car accident in the summer of 1963, killing the boy that would most likely be her boyfriend at the end of the party they were both driving to. Although this catalyst looms large in the rest of the novel, it is the driving force of the story, pushing Alice into a depth of grief that changes her life.

It is Alice’s life pre-Charlie that is the most interesting. Her family, especially her grandmother, form her world, a very old-fashioned kind of 50s life, where the girls aren’t mean and the boys cute, with parents refusing to let their daughters listen to Elvis and hang-outs at the local greasy spoon. Alice is fundamentally nice – this is her defining characteristic-but she is not dull in her early life. Her grandmother’s feisty outlook and unconventional life choices also formulate many of her opinions, those that will later contrast with her husband’s.

Alice and Charlie’s lightening-fast courtship is fun, and very, very steamy, but the story loses urgency once she marries him. She quits her job as an elementary school librarian when she marries in 1977, and her life quickly becomes enveloped by the privilege of his family. Here, she becomes less relatable, less interesting; her life is about Charlie now, and her life is made up of housekeeping and garden clubs and her husband and his family.  A large part of the middle focuses on their marital problems, after Charlie turns 40. Always a drinker, he isn’t the type to get loud and nasty, but he’s a grown man who-even when he met Alice-didn’t hold down a real job, and he’s floundering.

It’s ironic that a story that is so much about a couple actually deflates when it comes to discussing said couple. The best parts of the novel focuses solely on Alice, when she’s trying to figure herself out, not when she has to twist her life to fit his. That’s one reason why Sittenfeld skips over many of the bullet points of their life, including Charlie’s rise to governor and president, but focuses so much on the pivotal point in their marriage.

The last section of the novel focuses on a time in the middle of Charlie’s second term, seventeen months before the end: June 2007. Charlie’s approval ratings are in the tank, but his wife is beloved. The country is in a war against a Middle Eastern country that supposedly harbors terrorists, but there was no direct link between that country and the massive attacks that hit the country on September 11, 2001. There is a male version of Cindy Sheehan waiting outside the White House to speak to President Blackwell about his rationale for the war, and he is getting pressure about one of his Supreme Court nominees based on her stance on abortion.

Alice, who has publicly acknowledged in a television interview that she does support upholding Roe v. Wade, is at odds with many of her husband’s political stances, and wonders if she is responsible for many of his actions, because she has a type of power that no advisor can match. Her culpability frames the other half of the story, her adult life – she can hardly believe that her goofball husband has become the president, and now has to grapple with a very public life.

American Wife isn’t boring or predictable. I had read many of the reviews, yet somehow I managed to forget a lot of the plot points, and was genuinely surprised reading the novel. Sittenfeld enlivens a story that might seem inevitable on the page, since we know from page one the outcome and the journey. Essentially, she had an outline to work with, and all she had to do was fill in the gaps. The fact that so much is already public might deter readers, but instead the novel fills in the spaces in the resume, enriching your understanding of the First Couple.

American Wife is very steamy. It’s as if Sittenfeld held off from the sex in her first book,Prep, gradually tried it out in The Man of My Dreams, and let loose here. The sex scenes alone have gotten a lot of press – with selected juicy bits excerpted in Radar (major spoilers alert) – but it shouldn’t scare readers away who are icked out by the idea of “Bush sex”. If anything, the sex scenes jolt the novel out of passivity, enabling the real plot to get going.

Some reviews have criticized Charlie for being too one-dimensional – I found, at first, hard to believe that he would say some of the triple-syllable words coming out of his mouth – but he’s exactly who is, exactly as he said he is. The book illuminates the recent history of this country, offering an explanation as to how he became the president, how the US has ended up in its current state, while giving a good story. The fact that it’s mostly true is a large portion of the fun, but the book isn’t political and it’s not necessary to know the details of the Bush administration to enjoy; that only enhances the story.

Unlike Sittenfeld’s two previous books, American Wife does not uncomfortably magnify those insecure feelings we’d rather keep hidden. That is both a credit and a demerit to the book – it’s far easier to read, less fraught with personal revelation, but perhaps not as memorable as her earlier works. American Wife will garner more readers than her earlier material, in part because of the subject matter, but Alice isn’t as relatable as her other characters. She is not a person who, by temperament, generation, or geography, shares her opinions. She is viewed as far more liberal than her husband, but I suspect Sittenfeld did this because it enhances the novel, and because Sittenfeld herself is an avowed liberal. There are scant clues to Laura’s real opinions, and Sittenfeld has plausible explanations for both Alice’s reticence and Charlie’s ambitions.

I found the fictional stories behind George and Laura Bush led me to understand them better, to understand (even if misguided) the administration, how the country has ended up in its current mess thanks the past eight years. This is the reason to read the book.

Sittenfeld clearly has a thing for first ladies-she wrote a piece on her newfound admiration for Michelle Obama in a recent issue of Time, where she also discusses Laura:

But if Laura inspires my sympathy, I don’t exactly relate to her, or I relate to only certain elements of her story-her love of reading, her past as a Democrat-that stand out all the more because the rest of her life seems so foreign. She is of an older generation and has made choices, like quitting her job after getting married but before having children, that are the choices of another time. Michelle Obama, by contrast…[is] actually recognizable as a very particular type. I suspect this person will be familiar to anyone who has, in the past 25 years, been a young, college-educated woman in her first real job: you’re, say, 22 and somewhat clueless, and you go to work in an office where there’s a woman eight or 10 or 12 years older than you who’s not only visibly good at her job but also confident and friendly and well-dressed and busy with a life that features a cute husband and a nice house and maybe even a couple of kids. And you think maybe, if everything goes right, your own life could turn out like hers.

I think the era of First Ladies in the traditional mode is dying out with Laura Bush; Cindy McCain would be the last. They are the rich ladies who lunch, whose lives revolve around philanthropic works. I envision future first ladies to be women like Hillary, Michelle and even Sarah Palin-those who work to balance motherhood and their careers, ambitious and put together and smart. But I also think that the men running for president are going to have wives like that, because that the kind of person they’d be attracted to. American Wife tells the story of a conventional woman with an unconventional life, the type of life that will no longer exist in that capacity.

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