American Wife, a best-selling novel by Curtis Sittenfeld, is a fictional biography of the life of former first lady, Laura Bush. In fact, it was hailed as one of the 10 Best Books of 2008 by Time Magazine. When I started, I realised just how little I knew about Laura – but as I read, I found myself googling both her and her husband, trying to distinguish fact from fiction. Interestingly, while George W. Bush was a staunch Republican, some of Laura’s personal views aligned more closely with the opposition. And while the former president’s approval ratings plummeted, Laura’s held fast at around 80%. This novel offers up an explanation as to why she was – and still is – such a popular figure.
From the very first page, the life of Alice Lindgren, later to become Mrs Blackwell (ie Laura Bush), is told convincingly and honestly, with Alice herself as the narrator. It’s easy to fall for Alice, an only child with an earnest and likeable style. She’s appreciative of her quiet but stable family life, and is particularly close to her grandmother – an avid reader who shares their home. But Alice’s world is soon rocked by a revelation concerning her grandmother’s private life – one that troubles Alice for years to come.
Several key events are based on Laura's actual life – such as her involvement in a teenage car accident, 9/11, the War on Terror, Bush’s prominent political family, his drinking problem, Laura’s televised view on abortion – and then woven around these events is a narrative that ties everything together. As much as I googled, I couldn’t find any substance to some of the early episodes in the book, which were fabricated to explain Alice’s Democratic views. But the fictitious content made for a riveting read.
While the external political landscape provides the backdrop, this novel is very much about the internal workings of the human heart – and the relationships that shape who we become, what we believe, and how we act. Much of the story centres on the brief courtship and long marriage of Alice and Charlie Blackwell. There’s plenty of romance and a fair amount of sex, which makes for easy and entertaining reading – even if you do have to try hard not to picture George W. Bush in the bedroom. (Actually, I read an interview with the author, where she confessed to removing all the sex scenes when she first showed the book to her parents. But alas, they stumbled across an online forum that revealed all!).
At this point, I should confess that I read this book (500+ pages) in less than a week, while I was poolside on a holiday in Bali. I was completely engrossed, and American Wife was my constant companion, always within arm's reach, whether I was in the bedroom, at the breakfast table, or by the pool – it was perfect holiday material. But I did wonder, especially early on, if I might have found this book a bit too trashy if I’d been home in Melbourne? I guess I’ll never know, but I was buoyed by the fact that my lovely friend who first recommended this book happens to be one of the most intelligent, well-read people I know. She is also a true romantic at heart. So, I pushed my high-brow thoughts to the side and enjoyed the book for what it was – a great piece of storytelling, with an enticing mix of romance, intrigue, conflict, family drama and politics.
And once I was swept up in the story, free from judgement, I discovered that this novel is much more than a lightweight piece of chick-lit. At its core is the complex relationship between public and private life, and the question of how you reconcile the two, if they’re at odds. From all accounts, Laura Bush remained fairly tight-lipped when it came to interviews about her personal life, and despite being an intelligent, articulate woman with strong views, she seemed committed to her role as a supportive wife. This is certainly the way that Alice is portrayed within the novel: as someone who never sought fame, yet was determined to support her ambitious husband, even if this did mean marital compromise - particularly with her political views. She often grapples with the fact, though, that she could have done more to curb her husband’s excessive ways.
Ultimately though, as she counts down with relief to the end of her husband’s second term, Alice protests that she only ever signed up to be his wife. Confessing that she voted for his Democratic opponent in the presidential election, she adds: “During the periods when I've been the most frustrated by our lives, or by what is happening in this country, I've looked outside at the cars and pedestrians our motorcades pass and I've thought, All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power.”