Literary Wives: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Earlier this spring I was invited to participate in a book club-discussion group, Literary Wives, looking at novels that feature wives and how, exactly, does being married influence, affect, shape, change, and drive the character.

Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife was picked as the inaugural title to discuss.  A fictional exploration of Laura Bush, Sittenfeld's novel takes some of the notable touchstones and moments of Bush's life and adds her own twists, embellishments, back stories, and plot twists.

In Summary
This book blew my mind: I hated it, or maybe I loved it. I'm really torn.

I will say I read this nearly 600 page book in about two days, unable to stop, consumed with curiosity.  My opinion on it will, I'm sure, shift and change with time, and while I haven't written my review yet, I hope to soon.  (There's a good deal about Sittenfeld's writing style, the episodes she chooses to focus on, the graphic sex! that I'll talk about in my review since it doesn't fit here.)

I decided to jump right into discussing and opening up the discussion about American Wife -- feel free to share your thoughts as well if you've read this!

Be sure to check out the conversation with the other Literary Wives -- Angela, Ariel, and Emily -- who say everything so much more eloquently and interestingly than me.

The proposed frame to kick off the conversation are these two questions:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

First, A Confession and Then An Apology
I will admit that this novel provoked me politically and I've been really working to separate my political values from this conversation -- but for me, the personal is political blah blah and much of my response to this novel is shaped by my own personal values.  Here's hoping I can convey that well without being offensive!  Also, sorry this is a small novel.

Who is a Wife?
(In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?)

The title of this book in particular just amplifies this question, for our heroine is not just defined by being a wife, she's also THE American Wife at one point. 

Alice Blackwell (our fictional Laura Bush), is defined by wife for her whole life -- aspiring to be one, fearing she may never be one, becoming one.  In fact, a good deal of the novel dealt with the pleasures, pains, tragedies, and tradeoffs of romantic partnership (both those that occur and those that fizzle away and die).

Her being defined by her marriage, however, only seems to become particular to her identity when her husband takes political office; before that, being a wife seems to be one of the many parts of her life, from being a librarian, a mother, a competent party planner, a supportive in-law, or a reader. 

On Life Partnership
(What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?)

Returning to the first question, I'll admit to some real hostility when looking at Alice's marriage and her experience as a wife.  Although Sittenfeld is careful to articulate a woman who, for the most part, is happy with her marriage, I couldn't help but read this book as a beautifully written subsummation of someone rather interesting into someone rather boorish.  Alice is everything her husband isn't, and at no point does Alice ever seem to flounder for self-identity, and yet she spends most of the novel justifying not only why she doesn't really care what her husband does but why she doesn't feel a need to stop him, sway him, press back against him, or leave him.

I'm being glib: she cares what he does, obviously, and yet -- especially during the sections when her husband is in political office -- she lives with little desire to be a separate entity from her husband.  When she thinks about how much she doesn't want her husband to run for office, she simply says she doesn't believe she can tell him what to do; when she's misquoted in the media, she doesn't bother to correct people; when she shares a politically inexpedient opinion, she's happy to let the White House scramble to correct assumptions about what that means; when she commits a betrayal that will likely break her husband's heart, she does it in a way that affects and impacts absolutely nothing.  It was such a staggering handing over of will, agency, and self-direction, I was breathless with wonder for most of the book. 

This was where I felt the most resentment and dislike for Alice and where I thought for sure she and I had nothing in common when it came to our marriages and experiences as wives.

BUT.  I had an 'ah-ha'.

When I met my wife, close to a decade ago (!wow!), she was in divinity school studying to be a Christian minister.  I was working for a non-Christian religious organization doing justice advocacy and was up to my nose in ministers.  The last thing I wanted was to date a minister, but she was smart and funny and pretty and I was really, really intrigued.  Despite my determination to avoid ministers, I ended up falling in love with one, and for a good four years, found myself looking at a future as a pastor's wife.  All the things I had no patience or interest in -- churches, Sunday services, Jesus, potluck, Christian holidays, funerals, pastoral counseling -- were suddenly part and parcel of my life, and even though it was never a life I would have chosen for myself, I wasn't going to give up my then-girlfriend over it.  I maintained my non-Christian beliefs and attended church on Sundays and made nice to the well-meaning congregants because it made my wife happy, because I wanted to be a part of something that was important to her, and because this was my wife's vocation and who was I to tell her what to do?

Yeah, I'll admit to being shocked I used half the arguments Alice did.

So even though my wife and I share the same political beliefs, I suddenly understood Sittenfeld's angle and focus on this famous couple.  While I wanted to loathe Alice for loving a man whose political beliefs are so antithetical to mine I literally get foamy at the mouth thinking about it, she has the same values and desires I do: to have the opportunity to spend her life with someone she loves and admires even she when doesn't agree with them.

While reading this book, I kept thinking back to Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife, a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  (The Aviator's Wife is our August pick!)  Anne was married to another intensely political public figure with whom she didn't always agree with; while reading The Aviator's Wife I felt more sympathy toward Anne than I did toward Alice, but upon finishing both books, I think I respect Alice more.  Anne was a wife and soldiered on as a partner to her husband, but almost unfailing as his shadow and cheerleader; Alice, despite my pretending otherwise, used the privilege and eventually the power granted to her by her husband, and her being a wife -- a president's wife -- allowed her to amplify her ability to affect change in a way Anne never did.

In Conclusion
Sittenfeld writes this one in first person, with Alice at some points literally appealing to the reader to understand her decisions.  At the time, I resisted, mostly because I'm a giant Judgy McJudgerton but having some space, I think I can appreciate her arguments, her appeal to understand her American marriage, and the mythology behind a 'solid' marriage.

Be sure to see what Angela, Ariel, and Emily have to say!

Next Month
If you've got the time or interest, June 1 we'll be discussing Paula McLain's The Paris Wife -- I hope you'll pop by and share your thoughts!

Comments

  1. What an interesting post -- and series! I was interested in American Wife, but the length always proved daunting (and honestly, I worried I wouldn't be able to set aside my political leanings enough to enjoy it). Sounds like there is much to discuss in Sittenfeld's work, and I'm very excited to see your post on The Paris Wife. I read that one last year and found myself thinking about it pretty often after.

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    1. Meg, it was a HERCULEAN task not to get all partisan in my response -- which might still emerge when I do my review -- but I wanted to play nice this first time! ;) I appreciate your stopping by since I know this is probably of little interest to anyone who hasn't read the book. I hope you'll pop by to discuss The Paris Wife -- I'm a little apprehensive that I'm going to hate it!

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  2. "This book blew my mind: I hated it, or maybe I loved it. I'm really torn.. . ."

    Girl, my thoughts exactly!!!! Were you listening in on my head conversations? :)

    I applaud your honesty and I don't see how one's own values and beliefs can't be touched by encountering this novel. I found that was part of what so provoked me, that those things so integral to who I am and how I see myself, were so constantly pricked and irritated and questioned.

    Your point that Alice is THE American Wife, as in the First Lady, is frightening because it suggests that in some way she defines us all, defines what it means to be a wife in America now. I don't like that, but I like that you saw it.

    What you say here: "she spends most of the novel justifying not only why she doesn't really care what her husband does but why she doesn't feel a need to stop him, sway him, press back against him, or leave him" was one of the things I found most difficult to swallow in re: her character and their marriage. Who in the world is she, and what does she care about? Your summation -- " It was such a staggering handing over of will, agency, and self-direction, I was breathless with wonder for most of the book" -- is brilliantly stated.

    I appreciate your sharing of your personal experience in relation to your experience of Alice. I admit to having more than a few of those myself as I was reading and this was what was so challenging -- I didn't WANT to look there, go there, and I was resentful of Alice for making me look twice at my own actions.....but this is the mark of good literature, that intense personal connection to human experience and life and it was this I most appreciated about the novel and Sittenfeld's ability to pull it all off. Thank you for highlighting that in your discussion, Audra. It's so important.

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  3. I listened to this on audio and it was absolutely absorbing. It was a while ago now, but I still remember a lot of it. I read it because I liked the author's other books; otherwise, I doubt I would have because I generally don't want to read fictionalized lives of real people (at least, I thought so, but I also listened to The Master by Colm Toibin about Henry James and that was really good too.) My husband and I disagree politically but, like the fictional Laura Bush created by Curtis Sittenfeld, I fell in love for other reasons and would never in a million years expect him to ever become the president of the United States with all the power and influence that comes with the position. If he were suddenly elected, I imagine I'd be as conflicted as the fictional Laura Bush, but would still want to support him as a wife and wouldn't feel qualified to try to be the power behind the throne.
    Thanks for your interesting post!

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  4. Audra! This is a fantastic review. I love your point about politics and that even if we have different views, a lot of us have the same values. It is strange and sad how we tend to reject others based on seemingly different politics (or religion) yet we very likely have so much in common. This is an epiphany for me! So thank you for helping me to see how I can better embrace those who I "think" are so different and perhaps are not. I, too, differ politically from the book's characters, but I see this as more divisive in my real life. Anyway, I also loved the personal touch you put on it with your story about your wife and her religion and your differences there. I enjoyed your review so much!

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  5. Wow. Awesome review! I love your reaction—you're not Judgy McJudgerton at all. :) And I really appreciate you ladies hanging in there with my choice! I think all of us had to put aside some of our assumptions and preconceived ideas about the Bushes to even pick the book up at all. Thank you!!

    Also—I'm totally touched by the story of you and your wife! What an amazing proof of what it takes to be in a marriage.

    This is a great observation: "Although Sittenfeld is careful to articulate a woman who, for the most part, is happy with her marriage, I couldn't help but read this book as a beautifully written subsummation of someone rather interesting into someone rather boorish." I thought it was so sad when people repeatedly told Alice that she was better than Charlie and that they were surprised she married him, and she was repeatedly surprised to learn she was better than him! I thought, "DUH!" But then again, I also thought—since when do I actually believe the best in myself? I'm sure most of us don't do half of the things we COULD do if we actually thought we could. And so we make ourselves boorish because we believe we are boorish. Isn't that sad? Agh. How terrible.

    On another note—now I'm really excited to get to The Aviator's Wife!

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  6. I read this book a while ago and enjoyed this so much.

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  7. What an excellent, thought-provoking post, Audra! I never had much desire to read American Wife... until now. Can't believe you devoured it is just two days.

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  8. Audra, I LOVE your review! I read this one a few years ago and really loved it. I've actually been thinking of rereading it so see how it holds up.

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  9. Great review! I love your personal take on it too, and how that made you reconsider the book.

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