American Wife: A Novel
by Curtis Sittenfeld

Random House, 2008. ISBN 978-1-400-06475-5.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 09/08/2008
Review of the Month, September 2008

Fiction: Mainstream

It's 2007 and the United States President has problems. This joking, bluffing son of an ultra-loyal wealthy family is in big trouble. His quiet, former school-librarian wife stands loyally and quietly by his side. Sound familiar? But it is Charlie and Alice Blackwell we're reading about.

Good thing the title points out this is a novel or one might easily mistake this Wisconsin beef-baron family for a real oil-business family from Texas. In her acknowledgements, author Curtis Sittenfeld gives a vigorous nod to Ann Gerhart's The Life and Choices of Laura Bush, a straightforward biography. She begins this book with a statement that an American first lady, "her husband, his parents and certain prominent members of his administration are recognizable." Are they ever! Sometimes I felt like I was peeking behind the lace curtains or spending the night at their house with too-thin walls.

The story is told in the voice of Alice, a small town girl growing up in unexceptional circumstances. One terrible night at the start of her senior year in high school, she was the driver in a car accident that took the life of the boy she cared for since her grandmother mistook him for a girl the summer before third grade. Alice's family and most of her friends support her, but she never puts the tragedy completely behind her. It haunts her through the final pages of the book.

As life goes on, Alice graduates from university and becomes a public school librarian, content with her life and loving her students. Then one night at a party a stroke of lightning named Charlie Blackwell strikes and everything changes.

Six weeks later they are engaged and visiting the extended and raucous Blackwell family at the family compound. They are all there: the three brothers and their wives, the patriarch (a former governor) and the overpowering matriarch Priscilla, known to the sons as Maj (short for Majesty) and Grandmaj by the kiddies. Six weeks after that the happy couple ties the knot.

I won't tell the rest of the story. You already know lots of it. But there is much more about Alice as a daughter, a granddaughter, a friend and a mother as well as a wife. Sittenfeld has an outstanding ear and gives more than a mere peek behind the curtains. Through Alice's narrative the scope broadens beyond the wife of the title. There is much here about all of the roles in life—for Alice and for many women. The author also has an eye for place. She captures the feeling of small town America in the sixties, the university town bustle of Madison, and the touch of luxury that comes with life in an expensive suburb of Milwaukee. The Wisconsin settings come alive; those in Washington sound a less true note.

This is a story of a particular marriage, but also a story of many marriages, of accommodation and compromise, giving and taking, and, in the end, sticking to it and to each other for better and for worse.

Be warned: There are some explicit scenes.

Curtis Sittenfeld's earlier books are Prep (a New York Times Ten Best Books in 2005) and The Man of My Dreams. Her work has also appeared on public radio's "This American Life" and in The Atlantic Monthly, Glamour, and Salon, where she reviewed The Life and Choices of Laura Bush. Newly married, she lives in St. Louis. Learn more about her and her work on her website.

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