Recent Read: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

With its 555 pages, this book set me behind a few weeks in my "read at least one book a month" goal. But you know what?

It was worth it.

When I picked up American Wife at the library, it had been recommended to me, but I knew nothing about it except for the summary that I read on the inside flap and back cover.

555 pages later, I can honestly say I'm not even sure I was ready for it to end. I thought it was well written, and the story kept me hooked throughout the whole book.

American Wife is about the life of Alice Lindgren Blackwell, who is raised as an only child in smalltown Wisconsin in the 1950s and 60s. Her family is working class, and it's safe to say that Alice lives somewhat of a sheltered childhood. She's quiet, an avid reader, and holds traditional values. Suddenly, on a late summer evening in high school, Alice's seemingly perfect little life is derailed. The tragedy defines the rest of Alice's life. It influences the way she acts, the way she thinks, and the way she feels about herself.

Years later, all grown up, Alice has become a school librarian and loves her job so much that she devotes almost all of her time to it. She spends her summer vacation creating giant book characters out of papier-mache to display in the library at the start of the next school year. Alice is single, lives alone, but doesn't seem to mind it. Her focus on her work, and her time spent with friends and family keep her fulfilled.

And then she meets Charlie Blackwell.

Charlie is a politician's son, an Ivy League party boy, and has a cushy "job" within his family's company. Born and raised with money, Charlie is selfish, crude, and definitely has feelings of entitlement. I could see how there are readers who can't stand Charlie or his family. Somehow, I still found him to be likeable. Perhaps only because of how he loved "Lindy" (his nickname for Alice).

You know what they say... opposites attract. Shortly after they meet and fall in love, Alice and Charlie are married, and in the following pages, we are witness to their 30 years of marriage through Alice's eyes. As with all marriages, they certainly have their ups and downs. I found it enjoyable to read because it was real.

Eventually, Charlie breaks into politics, first becoming the (republican) Governor of Wisconsin, and is then elected as the (republican) President of the United States. Alice, although supportive of her husband, has always held democratic ideals. I found the personal sacrifices she made for the health of her marriage to be interesting. Some would probably dislike Alice for not standing up and voicing her opinions, but I found the complexity of her life to be quite fascinating.

Now, here's where I tell you that Alice's character is (loosely) based on Laura Welch Bush. And Charlie is (loosely) based on George W. Bush. (And yes, I said I found myself liking Charlie! Who knew?)

Honestly, stepping back and looking at it like this, I never would have expected to like these characters. Charlie is sexist, racist, arrogant, and obnoxious. I hated all of those things about him. But the thing is, American Wife is not his story--it's hers. Alice is strong on the inside while somewhat weak on the outside. Still, I identified with her. She was never a victim. She is smart, she thinks things through, and she is deliberate. All of the choices she made in her life were just that--her choices. And she knows it.

I highly recommend this book. If you've read it, I encourage you to leave your own thoughts in the comments!


E @ Oh! Apostrophe November 19, 2009 at 4:45 PM  

I chose this book for my book club last year and we all really enjoyed it (even the boys!).

jenn November 19, 2009 at 5:51 PM  

Thanks for posting this, I really like Curtis Sittenfeld!

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