REVIEW: 'American Wife' by Curtis Sittenfeld

Don't let my activity level on this blog fool you.  I tore this book up.  I finished it quite some time ago, actually, and I'm now about halfway through Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire.  So other than pure laziness, why did it take me so long to get this review up?  I guess there was a lot to think about.

I loved the book.  It was one of the first novels I've read in awhile that I couldn't put down.  I literally couldn't get it out of my hands.  I even had to keep it hidden in my purse at work, so I wouldn't try to sneak a few pages in during downtime.  I didn't learn until I was a few chapters in that Sittenfeld very, very loosely based this novel on the life of First Lady Laura Bush.  (So loosely in fact, that my "Conversation with the Author" includes this quote from Sittenfeld: "The book has four sections, and in each section there's a major plot twist that has a strong resemblance to an event in the real life of Laura Bush.  But then everything else is made up.")

Sittenfeld's tone reminded me a lot of Joyce Carol Oates'.  For lack of a better word, it was very...literaturey.  That's what I think of whenever I read Oates.  Symbolism and metaphor and allegory and theme and motif and whatnot.  And calm.  Even the tense parts of the book (excluding a few scenes of dialogue) were written with very little passion.  However, the first-person narration made the writing accessible.  It was very easy to get to know the character of Alice Lindgren -- she is very quiet, very honest, very matter-of-fact.  Even with these qualities, though, I was acutely aware I would never really be able to relate to Alice.  I could only love listening to her.  And that I did.  Her backstory was so extraordinary (obscure, even), that the contrast it gave to her completely demure personality was just stark enough to make it totally believable.

As my earlier quote from Sittenfeld describes, the book is divided into four parts, each part entitled with Alice's current address.  Each residence demonstrated a part of Alice's life that either propelled her forward, or held her back, depending on how you look at the story.  Also, I feel that sectioning the book this way gives a subtle indication that each residence is what most defines Alice at that point in her life: an innocent, sweet, small-town girl; an assured grown woman, living her ideal, learning the give and take of being a lover and partner; a responsible, determined wife and mother, weighing her options, striving to make it all work; and the dedicated, loyal, loving First Lady, who is finally breathing again after years of letting her non-confrontational personality suppress her identity.  Heavy stuff, but engaging, too.

The parts I didn't like, surprisingly, were Alice's prologue, as well as the last section, Part IV: her time at the White House.  The prologue created this exaggerated sense of foreboding that didn't fit well with the meandering quality of the storyline.  After Part III, Alice is more or less catapulted to the White House, much of the justification and background left out.  That caused me to feel uncomfortable reading about her life there.  The book loses some of its realism.  Her character didn't belong there, and neither did her husband's.  But perhaps that is the point of the entire novel.  Part IV: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is 124 pages (the third-longest section of the book), and contains the climax.  But instead of feeling fulfilled, Alice's story just feels jammed, the epilogue unfinished.  Nothing is resolved by the end. (Again, a symbolic, Oates-ish finger jab in the face, or just poor planning?)

I can see why this book was listed as a New York Times bestseller.  It's fresh, conscientious, and the writing is genuine and sharp.  With American Wife, Sittenfeld masterfully creates fleshed-out characters and an unmatched piece of fiction that will be hard-pressed to displease.

NEXT UP: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire.  My college roommate read this shortly after I finished Wicked, and recommended it to me since I so love the story of Cinderella.  Maguire's fanciful/historical/twisted take on the classic fairy tale should be interesting to say the least.

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