I'll never forget how I felt when reading Curtis Sittenfeld's first novel, Prep. Prep is the story of a teenager that goes away to a boarding school, by choice, and finds herself among people of a different economic background than herself. I felt her pain, her awkwardness, at times I cringed at the situations she found herself in. Sittenfeld has the gift of understanding human emotion, what people's innermost thoughts are, and she brilliantly transforms this understanding into words.
American Wife is Sittenfeld's third novel, and the third that I have read. It is the tale of Alice Blackwell, from her youth, to young adulthood, to life as a wife and mother, and finally to the White House where she is First Lady of the United States. Alice is written as a real woman, one that is flawed and yet likable, that suffers tragedy but is able to move on. I found myself immediately drawn into this novel, into the life of Alice, an incredibly well-realized character whose mind I felt privy to. At 550 pages, this is not a short book, but I found myself losing track of time and turning pages well past my usual bedtime.
What you need to know, and what you can read about on the web if you care to look, is that American Wife has stirred up a bit of controversy. Because the life of Alice, and the characteristics of her husband, bear a resemblance to the current First Lady and her husband. The portrayal of Alice is not unfavorable; that of her husband is another story. Some have cited, and published the 'steamy' scenes between the main characters. I decided to forget about all this and read it for what it was, which is a novel. Which was all well and good until I came to the last section of the book when Alice and her husband move into the White House and the similarities between fiction and real life become awfully hard to ignore. I won't discuss my personal politics besides saying that I am looking forward to a new administration. I will say that I didn't find the novel offensive, though the behavior of the President behind-the-scenes made me roll my eyes in dismay and embarrassment. What I most wondered, was why Sittenfeld chose to base her novel on these very real people. This article by Sittenfeld, entitled Why I Love Laura Bush, helps explain it to some degree. Obviously the idea of this book goes back at least to 2004.
I really liked this book, though the last section didn't hold my interest as much as the previous ones. There is never really a great turning point in this book, and maybe that is because we already know what is going to happen, how things end up for Alice. For the most part, this was a compelling read, and an interesting insight into what private life might be like for these most public people.
American Wife will be published by Random House in September. Many thanks to them for this advance copy.