Recommended Reading: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

At 555 pages, this novel, inspired by the life of Laura Bush, is quite an undertaking, in more ways than one. The original four Literary Wives bloggers — Angela, Ariel, Audra, and Emily — have reviewed the book with more insight than I’ll be able to muster, but I thought I’d share just a few thoughts.

American Wife

First, some highlights, passage-wise, for me:

  • Alice’s love for the Midwest: “It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on” (53).
  • “When you are a high school girl, there is nothing more miraculous than a high school boy” (58).
  • The passage about Alice and Charlie during the tornado warning (193-96); Alice and Charlie are from Wisconsin, and Ms. Sittenfield, like yours truly, is a native of Ohio. I live outside Boston now, and the Boston-born didn’t have tornado drills growing up, and are always amused at the description I provide. But I’ve never been really close to  a tornado, and I have no desire to be, ever. Sidebar here: Immediately read Catherine Pierce’s amazing poem “The Mother Warns the Tornado.”
  • “I have always had a soft spot for people who talk a lot beause I feel as if they’re doing the work for me” (223).
  • I can’t find the page, but I liked the way Alice recognized a single woman based on what she was buying at the grocery store — yogurt and apples (though I have to say, I bought my fair share of hamburger as a single woman. Spaghetti is always the right answer to “What should I make for dinner?”). The novel is full of nice little details like this.
  • Almost any passage involving Alice’s grandmother.
  • “But I should note, for all my resistance to organized religion, that I don’t believe Charlie could have quit drinking without it. It provided him with a way to structure his behavior, and a way to explain that behavior, both past and present, to himself. Perhaps fiction has, for me, served a similar purpose—what is a narrative arc if not the imposition of order on disparate events?—and perhaps it is my avid reading that has been my faith all along” (429-30).

I found Alice, the main character, both intriguing and infuriating, both a product of her time and well ahead of it.

I think Alice’s nods to her privileged existence (when she’s at the pool with Jadey, when she’s thinking about the war at the novel’s end) were cursory, but I couldn’t tell if this is a fault in Alice’s thinking or the author’s failing. Sure, Alice is charitable and cares about others less fortunate than she, but she allows her values to be completely overshadowed by her husband’s. It’s as if Alice disappears, and I didn’t feel Ms. Sittenfield provided a satisfactory explanation for Alice’s weak attempt to explain herself (sorry, “they elected him, not me” doesn’t cut it). At the very least, as a citizen, she should feel free to express her views to her husband.

(Please note: I’m not judging Laura Bush here, because I don’t have the access to the interior self that Sittenfeld provides us for Alice. And literacy rules.)

Despite my frustration, I thought the book was excellent, and as I went along, I began to think that maybe the unresolved ambiguities in Alice’s thoughts and behavior are meant to be inscrutable; after all, how much do we really know about our neighbors’ marriages, or about our own? How much do we want to admit to ourselves?