American Wife: A Novel

by Jacquelyn Lewis

Alice Blackwell is a fictional character: She isn’t Laura Bush, but the veil is thin enough to set tongues wagging in Washington and beyond.

If she has some free time for reading once she decamps from the White House this winter, Laura Bush may want to pick up a copy of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife. Main character Alice Blackwell is not Laura Bush, but she’s close. Like Laura, Alice was born in 1946, and is an only child and a former librarian who married a genial slacker with a drinking problem who became president (in 2000, following a contentious election) once he found God. And, like Laura, Alice ran a stop sign her senior year of high school, killing a handsome athlete, an event which haunts Alice for life.

No, Alice isn’t Laura (Alice has a hush-hush abortion, and her grandmother is a semicloseted lesbian), but the veil is thin enough to set tongues wagging in Washington and beyond (in part because of the ick factor in sex scenes that rival those in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons). Multiple strands of truth are woven through the book (a controversial war is raging, a former press secretary pens a tell-all), but the interior lives of the characters are pure invention. Case in point: Alice personally opposes her husband’s “tolerant traditionalist” politics but promises early in their courtship that she’ll keep her objections to herself. Does Laura secretly harbor anti-Bush sentiments? It’s a provocative thought.

Showing that she’s grown immensely even since her best-selling debut (the angsty boarding-school novel Prep, which loudly announced her as a sort of literary love child of J.D. Salinger and Judy Blume), Sittenfeld now claims her spot as one of a new generation’s greatest novelists, gracefully and effectively proving that, as Alice says herself, “the story is always more complicated than people realize.”

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