Laura Bush never interested me much until Curtis Sittenfeld wrote an addictively readable novel based on her, American Wife. As I read Spoken from the Heart, passages from American Wife echoed in my head. Wow, I thought, Sittenfeld really nailed her.
Ever correct, Laura Bush does not mention Sittenfeld's novel, or much else that she finds distasteful. As First Lady, she quietly pursued the causes that mattered to her literacy, the plight of Afghan women but remained largely in her husband's shadow. Here she emerges, in fitful snatches, as a bookish, brainy, nervous woman, haunted by the car accident she caused at 17, which killed a classmate. ''It is a guilt I will carry for the rest of my life, far more visible to me than the scar etched in the bump of my knee,'' she writes.
The early stretches of Heart will resonate with anyone who grew up in small-town America. Midland, Tex., Bush writes, was ''a place of ice cream sundaes...and Saturday morning pony rides.'' She was 31 when she married George Bush there, leading one town biddy to remark, ''Can you imagine? The most eligible bachelor in Midland marrying the old maid of Midland?''
The rest of the book lacks the sweetness and poignancy of these first pages. It becomes a weary recitation of trips taken, dresses worn, meals eaten nothing more. For a woman devoted to her family, Bush has little to say about her children and nothing new about her husband (though she alludes to a few personal differences, saying, ''I had talked to George about not making gay marriage a significant issue'' in the 2004 campaign). She does manage to neatly disembowel her mother-in-law, Barbara: ''When I married George, I had thought I would be embraced by his mother every bit as much as he was embraced by mine.... What I came to see ultimately as our bond was that we both loved George.... Beyond that, we had little contact.'' What it boils down to is this: Anyone who wants to know what makes Laura Bush tick will come away disappointed. The intensely private former First Lady seems almost a shadowy spectator in her own memoir. B–