The most shocking thing about American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel based loosely on the life of Laura Bush, is not the fictional First Lady’s illegal abortion. It’s not her lesbian grandmother or the steamy sex scenes. What’s most shocking about American Wife is that this juicy roman á clef, a book one might expect to be schlocky, is so measured and thoughtful. Sittenfeld, author of Prep, has written an intelligent, bighearted novel about a controversial political dynasty. It’s also the summer’s most delicious read, a book you can guzzle like a cold, creamy milk shake.
Narrator Alice Blackwell grows up in Wisconsin, not Texas. But like the young Laura Bush, she’s a quiet girl whose sympathies are enlarged by reading, which gives her ”an awareness of the world as an odd and vibrant and contradictory place.” Like Laura, she accidentally kills a classmate in a car wreck. But unlike Laura, she drifts into an affair with the victim’s brother. When she becomes pregnant, Alice’s grandmother helps her get an abortion.
Fourteen years later, Alice, now a Democrat and a school librarian, meets Charlie Blackwell, the boozy, sexy scion of powerful Republicans. You want the brainy narrator to land this roguish man-boy, despite his shortcomings. She does, of course. How the story unfolds — Charlie’s alcoholism, his religious awakening, his rise to power — is familiar. The avowedly liberal author’s generous tone is more of a surprise. In 2004, Sittenfeld wrote an essay entitled ”Why I Love Laura Bush” for Salon, writing, ”She is such an easy heroine to root for — smart and nice but just flawed enough (she still sneaks cigarettes!) to remain likable.”
Still, American Wife is more than a mash note. It raises a prickly moral question: Should a liberal First Lady sit in a corner reading Saul Bellow while her husband pushes a ruthlessly conservative agenda? Sittenfeld dramatizes the question with a forgivably contrived plot twist. And who knows how close she has come to understanding Laura’s inner life? My guess: Not close. But it hardly matters. This is a novel, after all, and it’s a terrific one. A-