American Wife is a novel based loosely – well maybe not so loosely – around the life story of Laura Bush, wife of President W G Bush, 2000-2008.
As an English reader I’m a bit distant from some of the details of American political life, so, in the same way as when I read Cloudsplitter, I was not always able to identify the points at which this was a totally fictional account, and the points at which it was closely based on Laura Bush’s own life. In many significant points however it was clearly a retelling of LB’s own story, even though American Wife is set in Wisconsin, not Texas, the Bushes’ home state.
The heroine, Alice, grows up as an ordinary young girl in a quiet town. Her life is blighted by the death of a school friend, for which she suffers an undue amount of guilt. Later, working as a primary school librarian she meets and falls in love with Charlie Blackwell, privileged son of wealthy parents: a Princeton graduate known for his drinking, and by his mother as a complete waste of time – the weakest and least successful of her sons.
There are years of happiness, then Alice is driven away by Charlie’s drinking. Bereft, Charlie undergoes a religious conversion. Alice returns. Within years Charlie becomes governor of Wisconsin, and then President.
The opening and closing sections of the book find Alice in bed with her husband, in the White House. The 590 pages in between form what I suppose is a long flashback in which the story of her life is narrated.
It took me a couple of weeks to read this book – I was interested. The narrative voice is simple and direct, the characters varied though not always fully developed.
Alice has liberal views, and we are shown her liberal background and feelings through her commitment to reading and education. These liberal values are emphasised by the sense of guilt at the death of her school friend, and the unease she feels because of her privileged lifestyle as the wife of an American millionaire. There is also her grandmother , but I won’t spoil the surprise.
The question posed is how someone with such liberal views could condone the acts of a man history is likely to judge as a rash, shallow, uncultured and a warmonger. The answer is that she loved him – and yes, she was a bit diffident, didn’t like to make a fuss. Oh and ……?
In fact Alice’s narrative voice is quite compellingly honest. She’s not the typical woman behind the throne, and when it comes to power, guilt and drama, this is a long way from Shakespeare. Laura is pretty much wearing an emotional corset: it’s the result of that early experience of death, so by the end of the book her failure to live out her beliefs comes down to her weakness for men with open necked shirts, like Charlie, and to her willingness to being talked around, to looking for solace where she knows it can be found, rather than encountering the harsh realities of the lives of others. Sittenfeld’s is a quiet and restrained judgement.
Near the end the author does touch on some of the key issues of the “Blackwell” presidency, such as how he could believe that the invasion was a just act. Alice puts this down to the president’s aide, ever willing to encourage his egoistic sense of leadership, but I would have liked more of the details: we don’t get to meet the two leaders making their fateful decisions, or look very closely at the hypocrisy, lies and self-deceit that must have pervaded the White House at that moment.
I remember clearly the hanging chads, and the realisation from the start that this man would not be a good president. I remember the declaration of war on terror: how those words must have gladdened so many hearts in the Middle East desperate for that kind of confrontation to justify their radical ends. Only a shallow thinking president could have used those words. Clinton would have done it all so differently, and so much better. It would have been a different world.