Earlier this year, I went to my cousin’s wedding. It was a seriously Republican crowd. The only Democrat I met all weekend used to babysit the Bush twins. At a bridal luncheon given by a friend of the family well into her sixties, I was surprised to find a copy of Cincinnati native Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. I was even more surprised to hear the hostess had read and enjoyed it. Sittenfeld’s dissection of the entitled world of an American Prep school is not what I would call Republican-friendly. But neither is it mean. Sittenfeld is one of those writers whose true talent is honest curiosity, and I guess that crosses party lines.
This gives me hope that Laura Bush is secretly reading American Wife, even if she knows pretty much how it’s going to turn out. The novel is based very loosely on her life. Here she’s known as Alice Blackwell, and comes from small-town Wisconsin, not small-town Texas. But that’s where the major differences end (unless you want to count the fact that in the book she marries a man who you somehow can’t help liking).
Alice is haunted by the exact same tragic incident as Laura Bush. When she was 17, she ran a stop sign and killed the most popular boy in town. She wasn’t drunk, just distracted and inexperienced. Rumor was that Laura had a crush on him. In American Wife, the crush is mutual — Alice kills Andrew Imhoff on the way to a party where, under normal circumstances, they would be having their first kiss.
If there’s one weakness in this book, however, it’s that Sittenfeld’s take on the aftermath is a little too cerebral. Sittenfeld has a great ear for inner dialogue and usually nails the authentic tone of the thoughts that run through the mind in uncomfortable situations. She’s not as good with actual trauma.
Years of presidential campaigning are condensed into a paragraph but, for some reason, she feels compelled to write several pages of Alice’s unconvincing self-analysis. Things improve when the plot turns on some bizarre decisions Alice makes in the weeks after the accident, but these are twists I won’t reveal in a book that already has too few.
Other than this one awkward chapter, American Wife is amazingly readable for a book that is so predicable. This is largely because Laura Bush’s life is such a naturally strange, weird fairytale. She kills her high school crush and remains unmarried until age 31, which in small-town America is pretty damn hard. Then one day the elementary school librarian meets the coke-snorting, dilettante heir to a political dynasty. This is a man who could have his pick of an entire state of Miss America contestants, Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders or East Coast Kennebunkport ice princesses. But he falls in love with a pretty, mature, prochoice librarian.
And think about it, with all the truly horrible things George W. Bush has done in his two terms as president, has there even been a hint of philandering? It makes you wonder, and you have to give Sittenfeld credit for doing just that.
Most writers, especially registered Democrats like Sittenfeld, would have turned this into some Edith Wharton tragedy of manners, where the smart, spinsterish girl ends up in an alienating Washington world with a rakish but now distant husband. Instead, she makes this an honest and convincing love story. Alice is the one good decision the vulgar, somewhat simple-minded, spoiled-brat President Charlie Blackwell ever makes in his life. Unfortunately, he makes about a million bad ones.
In American Wife, nobody knows this better than his wife, who loves him but always believed he would have made a better high school baseball coach. In fact, she didn’t even vote for him. Which is, unfortunately, not the case with enough Americans. Grade: B