American Wife

By CURTIS SITTENFELD

A word of advice before reading American Wife: put Laura Bush firmly out of your mind. While bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has waxed rhapsodic about her admiration for the first lady, she insists that in this novel, her most ambitious work to date, protagonist Alice Blackwell is most certainly not Laura Bush. Sittenfeld has conceded that she drew on some major events in Mrs. Bush’s life, such as the horrific car accident that killed a fellow student in high school and her marriage to a man who is eventually elected president and steers the country into a controversial war. The rest, she says, she invented within the framework of that reality. This is where it helps to forget everything you know about the first family, for what waits to be discovered is not just a gossipy roman à clef. Instead, readers will find a story that unfolds like life itself: with small moments illuminated in high relief and milestones almost blurred by their great significance, as well as a host of characters with real meat on their bones. But what really sets this novel apart is a subtle but insistent question that begs reflection throughout the story. As American Wife juxtaposes the intimacies of marriage with larger-than-life public personas, and personal values with party politics, Alice wonders, “How much is at stake when you decide something?” Though she’s addressing her husband, there is a sense she’s asking herself, and the reader, the very same thing.