Book Review

By Jacqueline Jago
PS News Books

American Wife
   By Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, $19.95, paperback, 576 pages)

Who’s afraid of Laura Bush?
   Curtis Sittenfeld, who has taken the bold and slightly intrusive step of faking Bush’s memoir, is not. Her novel, American Wife, was published in 2009 and is still on US bestseller lists - and ick factor aside, Sittenfeld has offered a plausible and well-written account of a gracious former First Lady (aka Alice Blackwell) and her widely reviled husband.
   Sittenfeld unpacks the contradictions in Bush’s/Blackwell’s life and marriage via the story of a first boyfriend (beautifully characterised) who was accidentally killed by Alice Blackwell when she was just 17.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld.
   Laura Bush did in fact kill a classmate in a car accident, and the spectral figure of Andrew (she dreams of him late into her middle years) can be read as a metaphor for lost political and psychological idealism: with profound impacts, in Sittenfeld’s version, on Blackwell’s later marriage to a President who wavered between canny and downright stoopid.   
   In the poignant manner of early bereavements, Alice Blackwell irretrievably gave and then lost her heart: her darling has died, and no in-laws, no fights over toothpaste or snoring will ever intrude on the mutual ardour of their young adulthood.
   In Sittenfelt’s account, the tragic events of Bush’s early life imprinted deeply the truth and truism that life must always depart from the ideal. Hence the marriage – by all accounts, a happy one – of the well-regarded Mrs Bush to one of the most unpopular political figures of the modern era.
   What is interesting about this book is that Sittenfeld cuts this Gordian knot (the ideal of an imperfect marriage) by writing Alice Blackwell as psychologically mature rather than as hopelessly compromised.
   While the squeamish are advised to skip the bedroom scenes, and Mrs Bush to skip the book, I found American Wife complex, gentle and unnerving: just the thing for a flight home or a Sunday afternoon.

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