‘I lead a life in opposition to itself’ – American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld makes her first excursion into the territory of ‘faction’ in her controversial third novel. This intriguing fictional memoir of an imaginary First Lady is in fact a barely disguised portrait of Laura Bush. 

Bush is re-imagined here as Alice Blackwell, a Wisconscin-born former school librarian. Bookish, well-mannered and ever so slightly prim, Alice is far from the archetypal heroine, but in Sittenfeld’s capable hands, her transformation from small-town angora sweater-wearing high school girl to quietly dignified First Lady is genuinely absorbing. As Alice reflects on the journey which has brought her to the White House, we are given access to the intimate details of her life, from the unexpected tragedies of her adolescence through to her marriage to the man who will become President, appearing in the guise of Charlie Blackwell – an ambiguous and all-too recognisable combination of cringe-inducing awfulness, crude frat-boy humour and a peculiar down-to-earth charm.

At the heart of this fascinating and often profoundly moving novel is Alice’s gradual realisation of the extent to which Alice has compromised her own youthful liberal ideas through her marriage, and her implication in Charlie’s presidency. The tension between the public face of the First Lady and her own complex inner life is clear: as Alice herself succinctly puts it “I lead a life in opposition to itself.” 

But quietly provocative though it may be, this secret history of the last US Presidency is neither orthodox political satire nor even really a novel about politics. Instead it is primarily concerned with the fabric of contemporary American experience, touching on race, class, wealth, marriage, family, gender, history and most of all, what it really means to be an “American wife”. In this way, Sittenfeld offers an intriguing peep into the heart of American society – from small-town Wisconscin to the White House – a world both familiar and yet profoundly other.

Any Cop?: Knowing, graceful and powerfully understated, American Wife is an utterly engrossing read.

Katherine Woodfine

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