the observer Sat 11 October 2008
Two mysteries hover over Curtis Sittenfeld's timely third novel, American Wife, a fictional memoir by a 21st-century First Lady that was rushed out in the US to coincide with the Republican National Congress. The first is how, in our litigious age, she ever managed to get what is a barely disguised portrait of Laura Bush past her publisher's legal department. The second is how she could have stomached spending quite so much time imagining Laura and Dubya having sex.
Actually, the sex is not so mysterious. Sittenfeld's novel is not so much a West Wing-style exposé as a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of an intelligent woman who has ended up implicated in possibly the worst US presidency in history. Alice Blackwell, Sittenfeld's Laura alter-ego, is likable and moral; the challenge for a novelist is to explain how this woman could have fallen for a man like Charlie Blackwell (George W right down to his 'flaring nostrils') and stayed with him. A heavy emphasis on the couple's enduring physical attraction becomes necessary in this context; even so, there are some scenes you'll find hard to scrub from your mind.
Alice repeatedly asks herself these same questions in a narrative bracketed by scenes in the presidential bedroom on a day when she has done something unprecedented in her marriage: publicly expressed an opinion that comes from her heart and contradicts the party line. 'Did I jeopardise my husband's presidency today? Did I do something I should have done years ago?' she wonders, lying awake at night. 'Or perhaps I did both and that's the problem - that I lead a life in opposition to itself.'
It's easy to see why Laura Bush would make a fascinating subject for Sittenfeld, a novelist interested less in external drama than in her characters' interior lives, as she demonstrated in her bestselling debut Prep. Laura Bush has offered little of herself to the media, appearing in public as a supportive wife. One piece of knowledge we do have is that her life was coloured by early tragedy: in her teens, she caused a road accident that resulted in the death of one of her classmates, whom she may or may not have been dating.
Sittenfeld makes this incident the defining moment of Alice's life; every choice she makes is ultimately motivated by guilt and loss, including the humiliating sexual relationship she begins with the dead boy's brother after his death, as if by abasing herself she might atone for what she has done. This results in a pregnancy that Alice's practical, worldly and secretly lesbian grandmother helps her to end. More than 40 years later, the feminist doctor who performed the abortion attempts to blackmail Alice into publicly opposing her husband's nomination of a conservative Supreme Court judge who threatens to overturn Roe vs Wade.
This present-day drama, in which Alice jets between time zones attempting to stall the threatened exposure while also confronting a protester against her husband's catastrophic war, is the least persuasive part of the novel. The real triumph is the vast expanse of Alice's life in which nothing very dramatic happens, just a series of small compromises by which she accommodates her principles to their opposites.
Alice's greatest failing is not that she is able to deceive herself about Charlie, but that she is painfully aware that she often chooses to do so to maintain the status quo. Counting down until the end of her husband's second term, she finds herself torn between the sense that she should have done more to curb his excesses and the desire to protest that she only ever signed up to be his wife. Confessing that she voted for his Democratic opponent in the presidential election, she adds: 'During the periods when I've been the most frustrated by our lives, or by what is happening in this country, I've looked outside at the cars and pedestrians our motorcades pass and I've thought, All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power.'
Sittenfeld has created a provocative picture of the complex relationship between public and private life. It is a testament to her art as a novelist that the reader never loses a sense of affection for Alice, even while wishing her quiet integrity could have been more forceful.