Staycation Read #1: American Wife

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March 4, 2017 by carlywont

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It took me awhile to get over my initial judgments of this book. First of all, WTF is that cover? The fluffy wedding dress and silky white gloves were a huge turnoff for me. Even more so after I read the nuptial scene in the book and found out the main character didn’t even wear a white wedding dress. It makes me suspicious of the book’s publisher and their conceptions of what their female audience likes.

bushSecondly, the book is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush and her marriage to George W. Bush. I have little interest in thinking about George Bush’s personal life or re-visiting the presidency of the original dumbass-in-chief (or so I thought).

Thirdly, I’m kind of sick of seeing the word “Wife” in titles. It’s not anything against being a wife (I am one myself, after all) but all the titles blend together in my head—The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Aviator’s Wife, The Zookeeper’s Wife The Centurion’s Wife, and on and on and on. (Apparently I’d be The Software Engineer’s Wife, but I prefer not to think of myself as defined by my husband and I prefer not to think of my husband as defined by his 9-to-5 job.) Also, doesn’t it make you want to call it “This American Wife”?

In the end, I decided to take a chance on the book—silky gloves and all—since a few of my most beloved, well-read friends and Roxane Gay recommended this book.

I’m glad I did.

Sittenfeld’s writing is very clean. Her writing is precise but also descriptive. It’s clear and quiet but never boring. Really, she is a pleasure to read. I will happily read another book of hers.

The main character, Alice Blackwell (neé Lindgren) is wonderfully complex. She’s quite relatable, especially at the beginning of the book. She is a goody two-shoes bookworm at heart—a persona I’ve learned to embrace in myself. (My ability to directly relate to her started to flag around page 150 though. It’s harder to understand the saintly attitude in a 30-year-old and I never felt charmed by her husband, Charlie Blackwell.)

Alice is a huge reader and there are some great quotes about reading in this book. For instance:

…and being a reader was what had made me most myself; it had given me the gifts of curiosity and sympathy, an awareness of the world as an odd and vibrant and contradictory place, and it had made me unafraid of its oddness and vibrancy and contradictions.”

And: “Perhaps fiction has, for me, served a similar purpose [as Christianity]—what is a narrative arc if not the imposition of order on disparate events?—and perhaps it is my avid reading that has been my faith all along.”

Word, girl.

The book is organized into sections whose titles bear the names of the addresses where Alice and Charlie live. Through their moves, we see Charlie’s political career progress until the inevitable last section—1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This was a wonderful way to structure the book and I let out a little yelp of excitement when we got to the White House.

American Wife forced me to confront my own dismissiveness toward First Ladies. I never once thought about what Laura Bush’s personal life was like, nor any of the First Ladies that preceded her. I never truly considered them as real people, I suppose. Learning about their husbands in history class, I never wondered what their histories were. Hillary Clinton demanded to be taken seriously as her own contender, of course, but I never realized how ghostly the other First Ladies were in my mind—and how that reveals my own inherent sexism. This book helped me think about that. A lot.

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Throughout the book we see Alice struggle. She struggles to forgive herself for a tragic accident she caused; to reconcile the class differences between her family and her husband’s; to decide between love and friendship; to give up a satisfying career as a librarian for her husband’s success; to love her husband despite his (not inconsiderable) flaws; to give up her own identity as a Democrat; and to find her political voice (or lack thereof).

At the end of American Wife, Alice reflects, quite poignantly on just how little she’s done, how removed she’s been from the strangers she does care about in her heart of hearts.

(Bear with me. This is a long quote, but it’s my favorite in the book.)

Sittenfeld writes, “I’ve done more than nothing and much less than I could have. I have laid inside, beneath a quilt on a comfortable couch, in a kind of reverie, and when I heard the unlucky outside my cottage, sometimes I passed them coins or scraps of food, and sometimes I ignored them altogether; if I ignored them, they had no choice but to walk back into the woods, and when they grew weak, got lost or were circled by wolves, I pretended I couldn’t hear them calling my name. In my twenties, when I was a teacher and a librarian working with children from poor families, I thought it was the beginning, that my contributions to society would increase and continue, but in fact that was my deepest involvement; in the years since, I have only extended myself from higher and higher perches, in increasingly perfunctory ways, with more cameras to chronicle my virtue.”

Is it the responsibility of the First Lady to lobby her husband? To attempt to change policy? To stop war by initiating a marital chat under the covers? Alice doesn’t think so, but you can tell she questions it by her defensiveness and her outright wondering. I wonder, too.

Overall, American Wife was a great Staycation read. It was interesting, absorbing, had a bit of drama, and made me think about our First Ladies—women who are too often relegated to the shadows.

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