The First Lady’s Lament

‘American Wife’ Inspired by Laura

Posted September 8, 2008 at 3:35pm

Curtis Sittenfeld wants to make it perfectly clear that her latest novel, “American Wife,” is not about Laura Bush.

From a disclaimer in the front of the book stating that her latest literary offering is “loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady” to public proclamations that the main character is of her imagination, Sittenfeld is adamant that the story is fiction.

“Even though everyone in the publishing world would disagree with me, I don’t feel like I wrote a book about Laura Bush,” she says. “I think I wrote a book about a fictitious character named Alice Blackwell.

Nevertheless, the similarities between the author’s main character and the first lady are undeniable. Both women are involved in car accidents at the age of 17, both work as librarians and both marry men from famed political families.

Over the course of 558 pages, Sittenfeld, best known for her 2005 critically acclaimed novel “Prep,” tells the story of a woman from small-town Wisconsin who finds herself on an unlikely path to the White House. Following Alice from childhood, the novel shows a strong and independent woman who gets caught up in a life she never imagined for herself.

“Obviously the book is loosely inspired by Laura Bush,” Sittenfeld admits. “I just became intrigued by her after George W. Bush was elected, and I started reading articles about Mrs. Bush, and she was different from what I had imagined or what I had seen on TV. She seemed like a really unpretentious, down-to-earth sort of person.”

The novel is broken into four sections, each of which features an incident that mirrors something from the real-life Bush family. For instance: Alice’s husband, Charlie, the boisterous son of a wealthy family who owns a baseball team and has political aspirations, receives a DUI and turns to God to help him turn his life around. Alice supports her husband’s newfound faith, glad to see him rid of the booze and cocaine, though she doesn’t participate in his new religion. On one occasion, Alice finds her husband chanting prayers with his reverend in the middle of the night, trying to ward off the temptation of alcohol.

“I’m not proud to say what I saw that night, looking into the den — it bothered me,” Sittenfeld writes. “It wasn’t reverend Randy as a person so mush as the prayer as an experience, the fervor I would never share. Charlie had traveled outside my reach to a place I couldn’t follow.”

Since the book’s release, Sittenfeld says she has heard that neither the first lady nor her spokesman have any intention of reading the novel. This doesn’t seem to surprise the author.

“I think there have been differing reactions to the character of Charlie Blackwell,” Sittenfeld says. “I think some people say he’s cartoonish and then some people say he’s really charming and endearing. I think he’s simultaneously endearing and not fit to be president — I’m talking here about Charlie Blackwell — though I suppose I would say the same thing about George Bush.”

In “American Wife,” Sittenfeld does change a few key details to differentiate the Blackwell family from the Bush family. The novel is set in Wisconsin, rather than Texas, and Alice’s husband owns the Brewers, not the Astros. Charlie is the son of a governor, not a president, and he attended Princeton rather than Yale. However, these details are so minute that it’s easy to to get confused and wonder why Alice is referring to the president as Charlie and not George.

Other members of the Bush clan make thinly veiled appearances. There is Ed Blackwell, Charlie’s older brother who is a Congressman, and Harold Blackwell, the family patriarch who served as governor of Wisconsin.

Even for those who might find the similarities a bit, well, transparent, the book is an enjoyable read, albeit a bit slow in the middle. Sittenfeld paints a sympathetic portrait of Alice as she goes through the trials of a life that is larger than she ever imagined. The reader learns that the car accident in which Alice ran a stop sign at the age of 17 and killed a classmate haunts her for rest of the life. It becomes so ingrained in her mind that she dreams of the boy who dies every few weeks, constantly wondering. Readers later watch her struggle to fit into a blue-blood world and ultimately clash with her husband on the topics of class.

In researching for the novel, Sittenfeld says she read several biographies about the first lady and spoke with a few people that had met her. At the same time, the author made a rule that she would not interview Bush’s inner circle so as not to get anyone in trouble upon the novel’s release.

“It basically took me two years to write,” she says. “I would say I worked longer hours than I have worked in the past or anticipate working in the future. I was obsessive about it. I either thought it should come out in 2008 or I shouldn’t write it.”

Despite her admiration for Bush, Sittenfeld says she is “without a doubt” a Democrat. Her politics shine through the novel as the Blackwells move into the White House. Through internal monologues, Sittenfeld tells of Alice’s support of abortion rights and opposition to a war raging in a foreign land. These opinions are in stark contrast to her husband, as well as President Bush. As a Democrat, these are views that the author herself likely shares.

In the end, the public will never know what goes on behind closed doors in the lives of the Bush family members, but Sittenfeld shows that it sure is fun to imagine.

Curtis Sittenfeld will do a reading at Politics and Prose Bookstore at 7 p.m. Friday.