American Wife

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Overview

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice Lindgren has no idea that she will one day end up in the White House, married to the president. In her small Wisconsin hometown, she learns the virtues of politeness, but a tragic accident when she is seventeen shatters her identity and changes the trajectory of her life. More than a decade later, when the charismatic son of a powerful Republican family sweeps her off her feet, she is surprised to find herself admitted into a world of privilege. And when her ...
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American Wife

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Overview

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice Lindgren has no idea that she will one day end up in the White House, married to the president. In her small Wisconsin hometown, she learns the virtues of politeness, but a tragic accident when she is seventeen shatters her identity and changes the trajectory of her life. More than a decade later, when the charismatic son of a powerful Republican family sweeps her off her feet, she is surprised to find herself admitted into a world of privilege. And when her husband unexpectedly becomes governor and then president, she discovers that she is married to a man she both loves and fundamentally disagrees with–and that her private beliefs increasingly run against her public persona. As her husband’s presidency enters its second term, Alice must confront contradictions years in the making and face questions nearly impossible to answer.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
From her husband's desk in the Oval Office, Alice Blackwell can contemplate the deep incongruities of her own life. How, for example, did a quiet, bookish girl from small-town Wisconsin become involved with the gregarious, charismatic Charlie Blackwell? Their politics, their backgrounds couldn't have been more different: Charlie was the carefree, even boisterous son of a wealthy Republican family; she was a registered Democrat who paid her bills with the modest salary of a school librarian. Nothing had trained her for her job as a First Lady and certainly nothing had prepared her for the painful controversies of her husband's second term. A riveting novel by the author of Prep and Man of My Dreams.
From the Publisher
“A well-researched book that imagines what lies behind that placid façade of the first lady…Ms. Sittenfeld was not out to sensationalize but to sympathize.
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times

“Brilliant…[A] triumph…Curtis Sittenfeld has provided a plausible secret history of an American embarrassment – and a grand entertainment.”
Joe Klein, Time Magazine

“A smart and sophisticated portrait of a high-profile political wife…Sittenfeld has an astonishing gift for creating characters that take up residence in readers’ heads.”
Connie Schultz,Washington Post Book World

“Sittenfeld boldly imagines the inner life of a first lady…an intimate and daring story…American Wife is a vicarious experience, an up-close portrait of the interior life of a very complicated woman…cinematic.”
–USA Today

“The novel, Sittenfeld’s most fully realized yet, artfully evokes the painful reverberations of the past.”
–New Yorker

“Compelling...enormously sympathetic...Sittenfeld’s remarkable gifts as a storyteller draw you back into the fictional world of Alice Blackwell. She writes in the sharp, realistic tradition of Philip Roth and Richard Ford–clear, unpretentious prose; metaphors so spot-on you barely notice them. Sittenfeld may have lifted the set pieces from a real woman’s life, but in the process she has created a wise and insightful character who is entirely her own.”
–Time Out New York

“Ambitious…Sittenfeld installs herself deep within the psyche of the tight-lipped wife of the president and emerges with an evenhanded, compassionate look at her mind and heart…powerfully intimate. Grade: A”
–Washington Post

“A masterful highbrow-lowbrow mash-up that satisfies as ass-kicking literary fiction and juicy gossip simultaneously.”
–Radar

“With American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld has deftly crossed an extraordinarily high wire…I read American Wife in just two or three delicious sittings, struck by the granular clarity of the author’s descriptions and the down-to-earth believability of the story, bewitched by the charming, frustrating woman at the center of it: Laura Bush.”
— Ana Marie Cox, The New York Observer

“Curtis Sittenfeld is one of our best contemporary chroniclers of class and caste… Sittenfeld imagines this couple so deliciously and so plausibly… Curtis Sittenfeld invents a deep, messy, sympathetic life for a public person whose surface is all we'll ever know.”
— St Petersburg Times

“Immensely readable. It's a nuanced portrait of a woman in a singularly fascinating position.”
— Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A broad, deep and utterly convincing account…a portrait of a woman and a marriage that also brings the reader as close to the probable essence of the outgoing president as any other novelist, or any biographer, is likely to get.”
— Portland Oregonian

“We love Sittenfeld. We love her wry, razor-sharp observations. We love her funny, straightforward honesty…[American Wife] is an empathetic, fascinating, and gorgeously written story about a 30-year marriage. We devoured it in one night.”
— Boston Magazine

“Endearing and poignant, humorous and enlightening, American Wife is a must-read for Sittenfeld fans--and a good first read for would-be converts.”
— Fredericksburg Freelance Star

“An entertaining, racy tale that's inspired more than a bit by the life of our current president's wife, Laura Bush…A well-told tale that will leave many readers wondering: How much of Sittenfeld's story might be closer to fact than fiction?”
— St Louis Post Dispatch

“The scope and detail of American Wife are reminiscent of Richard Russo. Like Russo, she creates characters from the ground up, ancestry, neighborhood, culture and all.”
–LA Times

American Wife  promises to be another sensation.”
- Dayton Daily News

American Wife is a sparkling, sprawling novel…A ridiculously gifted writer…Sittenfeld has harnessed her talents perfectly in American Wife, producing an exhilirating epic infused with humor, pain, and hope.”
–BookPage

“Widely anticipated and vastly entertaining… An intelligent, well-crafted, psychologically astute novel”
–New York Sun

“Highly engaging…fascinating depth.”
— Seattle Times

“A well-researched, juicy roman a clef about the current first lady.”
— Boston Globe

“Ambitious…entertaining…a parable of America in the years of the second Bush presidency.”
Joyce Carol Oates, cover of The New York Times Book Review

“With her first line - “Have I made terrible mistakes?” - Alice Blackwell (a fictional First Lady modeled after Laura Bush) reels us into a gripping epic of public and private lives. A gem.”
–Good Housekeeping

“This searing page-turner will make you wonder what unspoken promises lie behind the victory smiles of any power couple.”
- Redbook

“What is Laura Bush thinking? That’s the question Sittenfeld ponders in her novel,
loosely based on the life of our First Lady…Just as she did in Prep, Sittenfeld masterfully deflates the middle-class fairy tale — rose gardens and all.”
–Marie Claire

“Bold…conveys in convincing, thoroughly riveting detail a life far more complicated than it appears on the surface…What she does here, in prose as winning as it is confident, is to craft out of the first-person narration a compelling, very human voice, one full of kindness and decency. And, as if making the Bush-like couple entirely sympathetic is not enough of a feat in itself, she also provides many rich insights into the emotional ebb and flow of a long-term marriage.”
–Booklist, Upfront and Starred review

“Terrific . . . an intelligent, bighearted novel about a controversial political dynasty.”
–Entertainment Weekly

“Remarkable . . . American Wife is about the long history of a marriage, and . . . the way we make decisions when we’re young that have consequences we couldn’t have anticipated. . . . Sittenfeld’s most ambitious and impressive work to date.”
Chicago Tribune

Michiko Kakutani
Clearly, American Wife…will attract a lot of readers in much the same way as Joe Klein's 1996 novel Primary Colors got a lot of readers, who thought they were getting a roman a clef about Bill and Hillary Clinton. American Wife, however, isn't political satire; rather it attempts to give us an emotionally detailed portrait of a woman and her marriage to a politician, much the way Ms. Sittenfeld's first novel, Prep, tried to give us an emotionally detailed portrait of a teenager and her experience of boarding school. And while the final chapters dealing with the Blackwell presidency are badly undermined by Ms. Sittenfeld's obvious contempt for Charlie's politics (and her inability to understand how Alice could possibly share her husband's views), this latest novel succeeds in creating a memorable and sympathetic heroine.
—The New York Times
Connie Schultz
Detractors from both sides of the aisle might want to veer off message and actually read the book before lobbing grenades. This story isn't really about Laura Bush, although main character Alice Blackwell does share so many traits with the current first lady that the steamy sex scenes are bound to elicit a collective ewww. Never mind that. American Wife advances the notion that there is more to a president's wife than orchestrated public appearances. Still a radical notion in Washington, perhaps, but one that women around the country will welcome. Sittenfeld offers a smart and sophisticated portrait of a high-profile political wife who takes the reins of a life she never wanted and holds on tight to who she wants to be, regardless of how the rest of the world perceives her.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Sittenfeld tracks, in her uneven third novel, the life of bookish, naïve Alice Lindgren and the trajectory that lands her in the White House as first lady. Charlie Blackwell, her boyishly charming rake of a husband, whose background of Ivy League privilege, penchant for booze and partying, contempt for the news and habit of making flubs when speaking off the cuff, bears more than a passing resemblance to the current president (though the Blackwells hail from Wisconsin, not Texas). Sittenfeld shines early in her portrayal of Alice's coming-of-age in Riley, Wis., living with her parents and her mildly eccentric grandmother. A car accident in her teens results in the death of her first crush, which haunts Alice even as she later falls for Charlie and becomes overwhelmed by his family's private summer compound and exclusive country club membership. Once the author leaves the realm of pure fiction, however, and has the first couple deal with his being ostracized as a president who favors an increasingly unpopular war, the book quickly loses its panache and sputters to a weak conclusion that doesn't live up to the fine storytelling that precedes it. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
An elementary-school librarian marries the least promising son of an old-moneyed, intensely competitive Republican family and sticks by him as he rises from hard-drinking fool to unpopular U.S. President in this roman a clef from Sittenfeld (The Man of My Dreams, 2006, etc.). In the involving, richly imagined first section of the book, set in Wisconsin rather than Texas, narrator Alice spends a charmed middle-class girlhood with loving parents and a devoted grandmother, an iconoclast who introduces Alice to the joys of literature, among other things. Then, as a teen, virginal Alice runs a stop sign, hits another car and causes the death of the very boy she was on her way to meet at a party. In confused grief she sleeps with his older brother and has an abortion. There is a lot of melodrama, but Sittenfeld's understated style works well to bring home Alice's loss of innocence. Unfortunately, once Charlie Blackwell comes on the scene to tie Alice awkwardly to semi-accurate facts, the story becomes a plodding, predictable series of close encounters with the factual history of a family Americans already know well: Charlie's white-haired, overbearing mother and genuinely decent dad; Charlie's devotion to baseball and his stint as the owner of a baseball team; Charlie's hard drinking; Charlie's Christian conversion after Alice threatens to leave him; Charlie's limited mental faculties but soaring ambition; Charlie's Machiavellian handler who steers his political fortunes. Once Charlie rises to President and wages a war she questions, Alice faces a new (presumably fictional) crisis of conscience. While deciding whether to meet the protesting father of a dead soldier, Alice muses unconvincinglyon the insularity of fame, the role of the media and her own responsibility for her husband's failed policies. What draws bookish Democrat Alice to Charlie-and what keeps her his barely questioning helpmate-is how cute he is, despite those squinty eyes, along with his dependence and adoration. This fictional first lady is a wimp and her husband a lightweight. So what's new?
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Lydia Dishman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812975406
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/10/2009
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 213,760
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Curtis Sittenfeld
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of The Man of My Dreams and Prep, which was chosen by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2005. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon, Allure, Glamour, and on public radio’s This American Life. Her books are being translated into twenty-five languages. www.curtissittenfeld.com

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

Before her debut novel Prep hit bookshelves, Curtis Sittenfeld promised her ninth-grade English students that if the novel hit the New York Times Bestseller list she would buy pizza for the class. Well, I hope that her class enjoyed those pizzas, because Prep, a wry coming-of-age story set in a New England boarding school, became a surprise sensation upon its publication in 2005.

Sittenfeld knows the insular world of boarding schools all too well. When the precocious writer was a pre-teen, a recruiter from the exclusive prep school Groton came inquiring about Sittenfeld at her Cincinnati home. Curious about embarking on what she saw as a potential adventure, Sittenfeld decided to attend the school. As she told the Washington Post, "I just became enthralled by the idea of boarding school, and it happened to coincide with this period where I was restless and ready for a new adventure, in a 13-year-old's kind of way. I was just curious about the world. I wanted a change."

That change she sought would eventually become material for her first novel, the witty, insightful bestseller Prep, in which a smart and singular 14-year-old named Lee Fiora finds herself at the fictional Ault prep school near Boston. The shift from a life at home with a loving family to the elite Ault, with its pretty, pampered, yet cynical teenagers, is an eye-opening experience for Lee, whose wariness of their little society does not stop her from drifting into it. In her debut novel, 29-year old Sittenfeld already displayed a sure-handedness with character and dialogue that many of her older and more seasoned contemporaries would surely envy. Little did the high school English teacher know that her first novel would become such a runaway success, being that it had been rejected 14 times before finally being picked up by Random House. "One editor actually called my agent and turned it down, and then she called my agent back and said, 'I've never done this but I want to un-turn it down'," Sittenfeld says. "And then, she called again and turned it down." That editor is quite likely kicking herself now that Prep has not only made it to the New York Times bestseller list, but has received raves right down the line: The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Publisher's Weekly, etc. The New York Times named it one of the ten best books of 2005. Paramount Pictures has optioned its film rights. Sittenfeld's sophomore effort is The Man of My Dreams, yet another coming-of-age story, this time using a dysfunctional household rather than a ritzy prep school as the backdrop. The Man of My Dreams follows Hannah Gavener for over a decade, detailing the travails of her friendships, familial relationships, and therapy sessions. The book is yet another example of Sittenfeld's gift for crafting fully dimensional characters and blending drama and humor. Only recently published, The Man of My Dreams is already receiving accolades from the likes of The Library Journal and acclaimed short story writer Alice Munro. Who knows, Curtis Sittenfeld may even have to buy another round of pizza for her class.

Good To Know

A few fun facts about Sittenfeld from our interview:

"I eat so much fruit that my friends and family tease me about being a monkey."

"I have trouble staying awake past 10:00 p.m."

"I have a big crush on Bruce Springsteen (but then, who doesn't?)."

"When I was in junior high, my parents said they'd let me get my ears pierced if I made honor roll every quarter. And not to brag, but I did."

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    1. Hometown:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 23, 1975
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cincinnati, Ohio
    1. Education:
      B.A., Stanford University, 1997; M.F.A., University of Iowa (Iowa Writers’ Workshop), 2001
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

PART I
1272 Amity Lane  

In 1954, the summer before I entered third grade, my grandmother mistook Andrew Imhof for a girl. I’d accompanied my grandmother to the grocery store—that morning, while reading a novel that mentioned hearts of palm, she’d been seized by a desire to have some herself and had taken me along on the walk to town—and it was in the canned-goods section that we encountered Andrew, who was with his mother. Not being of the same generation, Andrew’s mother and my grandmother weren’t friends, but they knew each other the way people in Riley, Wisconsin, did. Andrew’s mother was the one who approached us, setting her hand against her chest and saying to my grandmother, “Mrs. Lindgren, it’s Florence Imhof. How are you?”

Andrew and I had been classmates for as long as we’d been going to school, but we merely eyed each other without speaking. We both were eight. As the adults chatted, he picked up a can of peas and held it by securing it between his flat palm and his chin, and I wondered if he was showing off.

This was when my grandmother shoved me a little. “Alice, say hello to Mrs. Imhof.” As I’d been taught, I extended my hand. “And isn’t your daughter darling,” my grandmother continued, gesturing toward Andrew, “but I don’t believe I know her name.”

A silence ensued during which I’m pretty sure Mrs. Imhof was deciding how to correct my grandmother. At last, touching her son’s shoulder, Mrs. Imhof said, “This is Andrew. He and Alice are in the same class over at the school.”

My grandmother squinted. “Andrew, did you say?” She even turned her head, angling her ear as if she were hard of hearing, though I knew she wasn’t. She seemed to willfully refuse the pardon Mrs. Imhof had offered, and I wanted to tap my grandmother’s arm, to tug her over so her face was next to mine and say, “Granny, he’s a boy!” It had never occurred to me that Andrew looked like a girl—little about Andrew Imhof had occurred to me at that time in my life—but it was true that he had unusually long eyelashes framing hazel eyes, as well as light brown hair that had gotten a bit shaggy over the summer. However, his hair was long only for that time and for a boy; it was still far shorter than mine, and there was nothing feminine about the chinos or red-and-white-checked shirt he wore.

“Andrew is the younger of our two sons,” Mrs. Imhof said, and her voice contained a new briskness, the first hint of irritation. “His older brother is Pete.”

“Is that right?” My grandmother finally appeared to grasp the situation, but grasping it did not seem to have made her repentant. She leaned forward and nodded at Andrew—he still was holding the peas—and said, “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. You be sure my granddaughter behaves herself at school. You can report back to me if she doesn’t.”

Andrew had said nothing thus far—it was not clear he’d been paying enough attention to the conversation to understand that his gender was in dispute—but at this he beamed: a closed-mouth but enormous smile, one that I felt implied, erroneously, that I was some sort of mischief-maker and he would indeed be keeping his eye on me. My grandmother, who harbored a lifelong admiration for mischief, smiled back at him like a conspirator. After she and Mrs. Imhof said goodbye to each other (our search for hearts of palm had, to my grandmother’s disappointment if not her surprise, proved unsuccessful), we turned in the opposite direction from them. I took my grandmother’s hand and whispered to her in what I hoped was a chastening tone, “Granny.”

Not in a whisper at all, my grandmother said, “You don’t think that child looks like a girl? He’s downright pretty!”

“Shhh!”

“Well, it’s not his fault, but I can’t believe I’m the first one to make that mistake. His eyelashes are an inch long.”

As if to verify her claim, we both turned around. By then we were thirty feet from the Imhofs, and Mrs. Imhof had her back to us, leaning toward a shelf. But Andrew was facing my grandmother and me. He still was smiling slightly, and when my eyes met his, he lifted his eyebrows twice.

“He’s flirting with you!” my grandmother exclaimed.

“What does ‘flirting’ mean?”

She laughed. “It’s when a person likes you, so they try to catch your attention.”

Andrew Imhof liked me? Surely, if the information had been delivered by an adult—and not just any adult but my wily grandmother—it had to be true. Andrew liking me seemed neither thrilling nor appalling; mostly, it just seemed unexpected. And then, having considered the idea, I dismissed it. My grandmother knew about some things, but not the social lives of eight-year-olds. After all, she hadn’t even recognized Andrew as a boy.

In the house I grew up in, we were four: my grandmother, my parents, and me. On my father’s side, I was a third-generation only child, which was greatly unusual in those days. While I certainly would have liked a sibling, I knew from an early age not to mention it—my mother had miscarried twice by the time I was in first grade, and those were just the pregnancies I knew about, the latter occurring when she was five months along. Though the miscarriages weighted my parents with a quiet sadness, our family as it was seemed evenly balanced. At dinner, we each sat on one side of the rectangular table in the dining room; heading up the sidewalk to church, we could walk in pairs; in the summer, we could split a box of Yummi-Freez ice-cream bars; and we could play euchre or bridge, both of which they taught me when I was ten and which we often enjoyed on Friday and Saturday nights.

Although my grandmother possessed a rowdy streak, my parents were exceedingly considerate and deferential to each other, and for years I believed this mode to be the norm among families and saw all other dynamics as an aberration. My best friend from early girlhood was Dena Janaszewski, who lived across the street, and I was constantly shocked by what I perceived to be Dena’s, and really all the Janaszewskis’, crudeness and volume: They hollered to one another from between floors and out windows; they ate off one another’s plates at will, and Dena and her two younger sisters constantly grabbed and poked at one another’s braids and bottoms; they entered the bathroom when it was occupied; and more shocking than the fact that her father once said goddamn in my presence—his exact words, entering the kitchen, were “Who took my goddamn hedge clippers?”—was the fact that neither Dena, her mother, nor her sisters seemed to even notice.

In my own family, life was calm. My mother and father occasionally disagreed—a few times a year he would set his mouth in a firm straight line, or the corners of her eyes would draw down with a kind of wounded disappointment—but it happened infrequently, and when it did, it seemed unnecessary to express aloud. Merely sensing discord, whether in the role of inflictor or recipient, pained them enough.

My father had two mottoes, the first of which was “Fools’ names and fools’ faces often appear in public places.” The second was “Whatever you are, be a good one.” I never knew the source of the first motto, but the second came from Abraham Lincoln. By profession, my father worked as the branch manager of a bank, but his great passion—his hobby, I suppose you’d say, which seems to be a thing not many people have anymore unless you count searching the Internet or talking on cell phones—was bridges. He especially admired the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge and once told me that during its construction, the contractor had arranged, at great expense, for an enormous safety net to run beneath it. “That’s called employer responsibility,” my father said. “He wasn’t just worried about profit.” My father closely followed the building of both the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan—he called it the Mighty Mac—and later, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which, upon completion in 1964, would connect Brooklyn and Staten Island and be the largest suspension bridge in the world.

My parents both had grown up in Milwaukee and met in 1943, when my mother was eighteen and working in a glove factory, and my father was twenty and working at a branch of Wisconsin State Bank & Trust. They struck up a conversation in a soda shop, and were engaged by the time my father enlisted in the army. After the war ended, they married and moved forty-five miles west to Riley, my father’s mother in tow, so he could open a branch of the bank there. My mother never again held a job. As a housewife, she had a light touch—she did not seem overburdened or cranky, she didn’t remind the rest of us how much she did—and yet she sewed many of her own and my clothes, kept the house meticulous, and always prepared our meals. The food we ate was acceptable more often than delicious; she favored pan-broiled steak, or noodle and cheese loafs, and she taught me her recipes in a low-key, literal way, never explaining why I needed to know them. Why wouldn’t I need to know them? She was endlessly patient and a purveyor of small, sweet gestures: Without commenting, she’d leave pretty ribbons or peppermint candies on my bed or, on my bureau, a single flower in a three-inch vase.

My mother was the second youngest of eight siblings, none of whom we saw frequently. She had five brothers and two sisters, and only one of her sisters, my Aunt Marie, who was married to a mechanic and had six children, had ever come to Riley. When my mother’s parents were still alive, we’d drive to visit them in Milwaukee, but they died within ten days of each other when I was six, and after that we’d go years without seeing my aunts, uncles, and cousins. My impression was that their houses all were small and crowded, filled with the squabbling of children and the smell of sour milk, and the men were terse and the women were harried; in a way that was not cruel, none of them appeared to be particularly interested in us. We visited less and less the older I got, and my father’s mother never went along, although she’d ask us to pick up schnecken from her favorite German bakery. In my childhood, there was a relieved feeling that came over me when we drove away from one of my aunt’s or uncle’s houses, a feeling I tried to suppress because I knew even then that it was unchristian. Without anyone in my immediate family saying so, I came to understand that my mother had chosen us; she had chosen our life together over one like her siblings’, and the fact that she’d been able to choose made her lucky.

Like my mother, my grandmother did not hold a job after the move to Riley, but she didn’t really join in the upkeep of the house, either. In retrospect, I’m surprised that her unhelpfulness did not elicit resentment from my mother, but it truly seems that it didn’t. I think my mother found her mother-in-law entertaining, and in a person who entertains us, there is much we forgive. Most afternoons, when I returned home from school, the two of them were in the kitchen, my mother paused between chores with an apron on or a dust rag over her shoulder, listening intently as my grandmother recounted a magazine article she’d just finished about, say, the mysterious murder of a mobster’s girlfriend in Chicago.

My grandmother never vacuumed or swept, and only rarely, if my parents weren’t home or my mother was sick, would she cook, preparing dishes notable mostly for their lack of nutrition: An entire dinner could consist of fried cheese or half-raw pancakes. What my grandmother did do was read; this was the primary way she spent her time. It wasn’t unusual for her to complete a book a day—she preferred novels, especially the Russian masters, but she also read histories, biographies, and pulpy mysteries—and for hours and hours every morning and afternoon, she sat either in the living room or on top of her bed (the bed would be made, and she would be fully dressed), turning pages and smoking Pall Malls. From early on, I understood that the household view of my grandmother, which is to say my parents’ view, was not simply that she was both smart and frivolous but that her smartness and her frivolity were intertwined. That she could tell you all about the curse of the Hope Diamond, or about cannibalism in the Donner Party—it wasn’t that she ought to be ashamed, exactly, to possess such knowledge, but there was no reason for her to be proud of it, either. The tidbits she relayed were interesting, but they had little to do with real life: paying a mortgage, scrubbing a pan, keeping warm in the biting cold of Wisconsin winters.

I’m pretty sure that rather than resisting this less than flattering view of herself, my grandmother shared it. In another era, I imagine she’d have made an excellent book critic for a newspaper, or even an English professor, but she’d never attended college, and neither had my parents. My grandmother’s husband, my father’s father, had died early, and as a young widow, my grandmother had gone to work in a ladies’ dress shop, waiting on Milwaukee matrons who, as she told it, had money but not taste. She’d held this job until the age of fifty—fifty was older then than it is now—at which point she’d moved to Riley with my newlywed parents.

My grandmother borrowed the majority of the books she read from the library, but she bought some, too, and these she kept in her bedroom on a shelf so full that every ledge contained two rows; it reminded me of a girl in my class, Pauline Geisseler, whose adult teeth had grown in before her baby teeth fell out and who would sometimes, with a total lack of self-consciousness, open her mouth for us at recess. My grandmother almost never read aloud to me, but she regularly took me to the library—I read and reread the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and both the Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series—and my grandmother often summarized the grown-up books she’d read in tantalizing ways: A well-bred married woman falls in love with a man who is not her husband; after her husband learns of the betrayal, she has no choice but to throw herself in the path of an oncoming train . . .

From the Hardcover edition.

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Foreword

1. The novel opens and closes with Alice wondering if she's made terrible mistakes. Do you think she has? If so, what are they?

2. Alice's grandmother passes down her love of reading to Alice. How else is Alice influenced by her grandmother?

3. Why does Andrew remain such an important figure to Alice, even decades later? Do you think they would have ended up together under different circumstances?

4. To what do you attribute Dena's anger at what she calls Alice's betrayal? Do you believe her anger is justified?

5. Is Charlie a likable character? Can you understand Alice's attraction to him?

6. Does Alice compromise herself and her ideals during her marriage, or does she realistically alter her behavior and expectations in order to preserve the most important relationship in her life?

7. Were you surprised by the scene between Alice and Joe at the Princeton reunion? Why do you think it happened?

8. What would you have done in Alice's situation at the end of the novel? Do you think it was wrong of her to take the stance she did?

9. How do you think Laura Bush would react to this novel if she read it?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. The novel opens and closes with Alice wondering if she’s made terrible mistakes. Do you think she has? If so, what are they?

2. Alice’s grandmother passes down her love of reading. How else is Alice influenced by her grandmother?

3. Why does Andrew remain such an important figure to Alice, even decades later? Do you think they would have ended up together under different circumstances?

4. To what do you attribute Dena’s anger at what she calls Alice’s betrayal? Do you believe her anger is justified?

5. Is Charlie a likable character? Can you understand Alice’s attraction to him?

6. Does Alice compromise herself and her ideals during her marriage, or does she realistically alter her behavior and expectations in order to preserve the most important relationship in her life?

7. Were you surprised by the scene between Alice and Joe at the Princeton reunion? Why do you think it happened?

8. What would you have done in Alice’s situation at the end of the novel? Do you think it was wrong of her to take the stance she did?

9. How do you think Laura Bush would react to this novel if she read it?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 228 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(63)

4 Star

(76)

3 Star

(45)

2 Star

(19)

1 Star

(25)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 230 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2009

    Cheap Shot!

    After reading less than 100 pages of this so-called work of fiction I have no desire to finish it. What a cheap shot this author takes at Laura Bush. I find the book disrespectful and uncalled for. The author has taken the liberty of adding a disclaimer at the beginning of the book as if the disclaimer makes this insulting and disgustingly sexually explicit book acceptable... not in my book. If you want to write fiction, then write fiction, but to add such a trashy element to a story that so closely mirrors the life of a former first lady is unacceptable.

    8 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 18, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Torn about this one...

    While I gave the book 4 stars, I am still perplexed in how I should feel about it. If it were just a story, completely made up, not about a recent First Lady, I would say that I really enjoyed the book. But because I know this book is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush, I felt like I was trespassing into her life, without actually really knowing the facts. This is not "historical fiction" in the same way a retelling of the life of say, Anne Boleyn is, where Anne is still the main character. Alice is not Laura, and yet she is. I almost feel like I should now go read something about Laura Bush to separate the fact from fiction. I don't want the decisions or actions that Alice took in the book to reflect how my opinion on Laura Bush is formed, as I don't know really what is true and what is not. I know the big things, but when it comes to the intimate details, how can I judge? I think this is a tricky thing to write. I don't think this book is not worth reading, I think it is, I am just wary about how this reflects on the former First Lady and I am hoping that peoples opinions of her are not characterized by this book. Even though it IS fiction, that does not mean it is not powerful in what it is portraying. A good read still.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Don't waste your money!

    I was duped when I bought this book. It's neither fact nor fiction. It is a left wing view of the G.W. Bush family. If you are a Bush basher, by all means buy it. It portrays the former President as a drunk and inept husband and political person. His wife is supposedly the only intellectual part of the marriage. It is not a keeper for my permanent library.

    6 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Not what I expected.

    This one started out as an entertaining read fairly quickly for me but has kind of fizzled and I'm only around page 160. At this point I really have no desire to read further and I can't figure out why. It could be that I'm somewhat aware of how the story will continue (no mystery), or that it's starting to show a modicum of dullness, or that I'm finding it a little bit disrespectful. At any rate, I'm going to abandon it. I'm not willing to take this ride for 500+ pages.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    American Wife is a Must Read

    American Wife is a story of the other side; the woman behind the man, living a life into which she was not elected.

    Curtis Sittenfeld develops a simple character: a young, single woman (Alice) with a great family and friends, but who has a hidden secret (don't we all). Through a fairy-tale, whirlwind romance, she marries her seeming soul mate, a man with a prominent family history, yet he is always searching for ways to make his name.

    Comfortable in her own skin, Alice is unsure of the new life into which she's entered. But she emerges strong. A great book club read!

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2008

    Better Than Expected!

    I was hesitant to read American Wife, as I really had not liked Prep, by the same author. But, after an invitation to a book group with this as the selection, I decided to try it. I am glad I did. It is virtually impossible to separate this fictional story from the Bush administration, as recommended by some reviewers, but either way - the writing is terrific and the journey on which you are taken is great. The weakest section comes towards the end with The White House Years, but until then, it is a real page turner with your wanting to follow the story of this young, smart woman and her improbable rise from small town girl to First Lady.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 4, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    First Lady, First Rate.

    Let me preface my review by saying that I am heavily liberal and am not a fan of the Bush family whatsoever. With that said, I was intrigued by the plot for "American Wife" by Curtis Sittenfeld, not because it was based loosely on the life of Laura Bush, but because it makes for an intriguing story. I was more fearful of the size of the book than its content. I've never been a big fan of 500+ page books, mostly because they look too intimidating and I feel that I'll never finish them (especially if they lag). "American Wife," however, was one of the best books I've read in a long time. It held my interest throughout and, many times, I did not want to put it down. Sittenfeld writes conversationally. She doesn't dumb down the story for the reader, but she also doesn't try to make it more than it is by using Triple Word Score words. A quarter of the way through the book, I already I felt like I really knew the characters, main and supporting. The main character, Alice, was thoroughly fleshed out page after page. We really got to know, understand, and like her. And we could even forgive her for marrying a strong conservative because it was easy to see why she fell for him and his fun-loving nature despite her beliefs and political leanings, as well as her passion for students, books, and her budding career as a librarian. She never lets go of her beliefs; she maintains them even though her life changes dramatically from her small town beginnings. When questioned about her liberal leanings, she responds, "I'm not a Democrat because I haven't thought about the issues. I'm a Democrat because I have." Zing! Sittenfeld did a thorough and thought-provoking job of not only the relationship between Alice and Charlie (the man who would one day be president), but also the events that led her to that point in her life. I honestly could have read more and more about the character of Alice before and after she met Charlie. That's how interesting and well-written she was. The first three-fourths of the fictional novel focused on Alice as a child, growing up, being a teenager, being a young adult, and finally meeting and marrying Charlie. The novel was well-paced and maintained a smooth transition from event to event throughout Alice's life. The chapters of her life slowly unfolded before us so we, the reader, got to live in the moment with Alice. When Sittenfeld chose to jump to Alice's time as a presidential wife in the last quarter of the book, that's when the story felt rushed and I felt a bit cheated. There was too big of a leap from the beginnings of their marriage to the presidency. There was all that time in Alice's life that was skipped; at least twenty years or so. I know Sittenfeld probably didn't want to drag Alice's story on too long and needed to focus on the presidency part of Alice's life, but her story really could have been a series instead of a single book. Other than the time leap, there was only one other flaw of the novel, in my opinion: Sittenfeld's assumption that we know the outcome of Alice's story. I didn't feel that Sittenfeld should assume that we know anything about Charlie and Alice because they're fictional characters, not real people. Despite these two minor flaws, "American Wife" was one of my Top 5 books that I read in 2010. And, to Curtis Sittenfeld: I could have kept reading about Alice's tales! Thanks for evolving such a great character.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 17, 2010

    Laura and George W. tranported to Wisconsin

    Although Ms. Sittenfeld is obviously a very accomplished author (I thoroughly enjoyed "Prep"), she fell short in this novel for three material reasons. First, by basing her book on the lives (albeit fictional) of Laura and George W. Bush, she essentially removed most of the potential drama--we already knew what happened. Second, by choosing to tell the story in the first person, we were forced to view the unfolding events from a single perspective, a dangerous device unless the narrator is compelling throughout, which Alice certainly was not. Third, the book was far too long. There were dozens of paragraphs that could have been omitted without naving any negative effect whatsoever on the characterizations or the story.

    Lydia Dishman, in her Barnes & Noble review, advises us to "put Laura Bush firmly out of your mind." She says that the author insisted that Alice Blackman was "most certainly not Laura Bush." Well, no, she wasn't exactly. But if she and Ms. Dishman really believe that readers are going disregard the widely reported activities of the the last president and his wife, they also believe in the tooth fairy.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 11, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Fairly predictable and disappointing

    I like the concept of the book and was fascinated by the author's story of how she came to write it as well. Often these background stories are every bit as compelling as the books themselves.
    I am afraid in this case it was more compelling than the actual story itself.
    I found it a bit confusing to follow at times and I enjoy the genre of going back and forth between different time periods or points of view, but this seemed disjointed and with no rhyme or reason at times as to the connections between some of this "back and forth".
    I also felt it was way too similar to the Bushes and that was actually distracting and didn't allow me to engage in the main character's story very well. All I kept visualizing was Laura Bush instead of the actual character. Therefore, I felt it was weak on character development and I could not empathize, sympathize, or relate to the characters in the story very much at all.
    There was so much background as far as her teen years and her young adult years and then I felt it sort of fell apart as far as details or engaging the reader once she actually was the first lady.
    I do appreciate her handling for the most part of the politics as I know the author is fairly liberal leaning and she handled that is a fairly objective way.
    Too long for the content and it didn't hold my attention, weak character development, and I found myself doing the "Is this a book I want to committ to" most of the way through it!

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2009

    Cheap Trash

    I read about 80 pages of this book and it was cheap trash. The book showed no respect for the main character, former First Lady. What did I expect from a Liberal writer!

    2 out of 22 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 13, 2009

    A Page Turner!

    "American Wife" is a sympathetic and fascinating examination of Laura Welch Bush's life. Yes, it IS a novel, not a biography, but it appears Sittenfeld researched Laura's life well. There are enough facts to make it believable without feeling like the writer is taking artistic license and completely misrepresenting this woman.

    Being from Texas and around the same age, I've always been curious about Laura Welch Bush. I knew she was a socially left-leaning Democrat early on, a well-read, intelligent woman, a librarian who loved children. For me, the woman she became as First Lady never reconciled with her younger self. There was always something askew and disturbing seeing her staring blankly and lovingly up at her husband. I always felt there was another woman inside who was silently screaming.

    For me, the book explained a lot. Sittenfeld obviously feels respect and affection for LB. Her characterization of George W Bush, his parents, siblings and those around him (Karl Rove, Cheney, et al.) are not especially kind but are believable and seem realistic. This is not a slanderous book, however, it would be interesting to hear what Laura Bush or her daughters think of "American Wife", if they read it (and how could they not?).

    My only quibble with the writing is that Sittenfeld meanders off subject too much. She is prone to asides that take you away from the present scene and by the time she gets back to the original story, you are scratching your head thinking, what was the point of that? Her tendency for asides got tiresome toward the end and made the book slightly too long. The book could have used a good final edit, thereby improving this sharply written, face-paced, fascinating read. Would be a great book club book!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2009

    Don't bother.

    I could not bring myself to finish this book. The characters were entirely unappealing and the plot line was unimaginative. I was bored.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2009

    American Wife

    I listened to the audiobook AMERICAN WIFE and found the book to be captivating. I listen to many audiobooks while working. I have "read" so many wonderful books and the books that move me the most I will purchase to read using my eyes! This book is one of the many books I will purchase & include in my library.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Great read!

    This book served as a tasteful read tackling the issues of what it is like to be an American Wife and the choices she makes in regards to her husband's. It is a book every woman should read in regards to how much the average woman sacrifices for marriage.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2010

    Very Disappointing

    I had no idea this book was based on Laura Bush when I bought it, but it didn't take long to figure that out. Unless you are a diehard Bush fan, this book is totally unappealing and tedious. The characters are unbelievable, the educated, quiet Alice falls for a man who is a functioning alcoholic, and obviously not very bright. She tolerates his foul-mouth (even around their young daughter) and supports his every move, even though she doesn't have the same beliefs as him. Please. The sexual language is really unpleasant and unnecessary (especially after you have a picture of Laura and George Bush in your mind!). How this book became a bestseller on anyone's list, is a shock.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting and good read.

    I did not realize when I purchased this book that it was loosly based on the life of Barbara Bush. I'm not sure I would have purchased it if I had known that fact. However, I am glad that I did read the book because I found that the book kept my attention and was worth reading. I enjoyed it. I found some parts more interesting than others, but all in all I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Barbara Bush or not. As noted, it is only loosly based on her, and for the most part is pure fiction. It is interesting how the author combined the fiction with the fact.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 3, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Disappointed - This novel is a lemon!

    I have read, and enjoyed, Curtis Sittenfeld's previous novels, "Man of my Dreams" and "Prep." I was very disappointed with this novel. The begining was fun; I enjoyed the "coming of age" portion the main character experiences. I am now stuck in the middle of the novel and don't see myself finishing. I find Charlie to be very annoying, and Alice's child to be spoiled; these two characters are a turnoff. I feel like the novel drags a bit also. I hope "American Wife" was a fluke because I really enjoyed Sittenfeld's previous novels.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Easy read & thought-provoking

    Originally, I thought "Why in the world would I want to read a fictionalized account of Laura Bush and husband?" but then it was recommended to me so I gave it a try. While there were certainly familiar biographical landmarks (car accident, short career as a school librarian, elite summer compound, mother-in-law from hell, etc.), I found that the book raised more philosophical questions for me. Such as: Is a good sex life important enough to sacrifice one's values and beliefs? Is love? How did such an idiot actually become President of the United States?
    And: What would it be like to have a child who adopts values that are an anathema to you by virtue of emulating her father? What would it be like to be the man who sexually abased the future First Lady? The book is not a classic but it made for an interesting read.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2009

    Loved it!

    Amazing fictionalization of a real person. Absolutely fascinating.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2009

    Could not finish.

    I found it impossible not to compare the main character to Laura Bush and was so offended by the liberty taken with her life that I could not finish the book. I got half way through and could not stomach anymore. I am a supporter of the Bush family and greatly admire Mrs Bush. This seemed like a trashy way to cash in on her life without her consent by changing a few facts. A writer is certainly allowed poetic license but I think this book went way over the line of common decency and respect.

    1 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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