Book Review: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (2008)

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Review #61

Alice Lindgren has no idea how she ended up in the White House. A quiet book-loving girl from rural Wisconsin, Alice dreamed of being marrying her childhood crush and becoming a librarian. But a tragic accident changes the course of her life, and Alice finds herself married to man whose political views don’t align with hers, and whose political ambitions far surpass her own dreams. Alice finds herself struggling to remember who she is in a world of privilege and power.

I connected immediately with the protagonist in American Wife. Alice is a book-nerd who feels more at home within the pages of a novel than she does with others. She is not always comfortable in social situations, and deals with a lot of anxiety when meeting new people. I identified with Alice’s relationship with her grandmother, an equally avid reader who often neglects her family in favor of a world between the pages. I have always credited my grandmother with my love of reading, and the bond between Alice and Emilie was sincerely touching.

The plot of American Wife is a like a slowly moving river that gradually picks up speed as it goes along. It meanders its way through the key points in Alice’s life, showing the intimate snapshots of her life rather than drawing back to see the whole picture. There are wide jumps in time, and the story is not always linear. After a hundred pages or so, a small part of my brain kept asking when the book would be “getting to the point”. But the story of a person’s life doesn’t work like that, and instead Sittenfeld winds us through the aspects of Alice’s life that have led her to where she is now. All those little triumphs and tragedies that make up a person. And although it does move slowly, American Wife is far from static.

I was not aware until completing this novel that author Curtis Sittenfeld is a woman. This explains the focus on the bonds between women in this book. Alice’s relationships with her grandmother, her mother, her best friends, and her daughter are the keystones of her character. As Alice’s life takes her far from her country upbringing, the strength of these relationships are what sustain her through the transition. While reading this novel, I found myself treasuring the female relationships in my life. So many books focus on the “frenemy” circle of female friends, and it was nice to see something so open and trusting.

Much has been said about this novel being a loose re-telling of the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. I had no idea going in that this novel was anything other than a work of fiction, but apparently Sittenfeld took the broad strokes from Bush’s life and worked them into the character of Alice Lindgren. The comparison doesn’t become blatantly apparent until the final act, when Alice and her husband find themselves in the White House, but many of the important milestones from Bush’s childhood and early life are represented in American Wife. Some people have called this a breach of privacy in the lieu of yellow journalism, especially since the character of Alice finds herself in a few situations that the First Lady would certainly not want associated with her person. While I personally did not find that the book intruded on Bush’s life in a deliberately harmful or malicious manner, that would be a judgement for each individual reader to make.

While reading American Wife I chose to distance the character of Alice Lindgren from any resemblance to the former First Lady. Removing the political factor, what is left is a novel with wonderfully written protagonist that I thoroughly enjoyed.

My rating: 4/5

You can find American Wife here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

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