American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

American Wife is a fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush. Like many fictionalised accounts of real people, it can sometimes be hard to decipher the truth from the fiction. It tells the story of Alice (Laura Bush) and Charlie (George W Bush) from Alice’s early ears growing up in Wisconsin (Texas) to Charlie’s years in the white house as president.

Many people are put off reading this book because of their dislike of the foreign policy of George W, particularly the war in Iraq, however the part of the book dealing with the presidential years is only in the last 100 pages and this is a 600 page book. Don’t let your dislike of George W put you off this book. Sittenfeld is a wonderful writer, her characters are well drawn and the book is a fascinating read of a very interesting and conflicted character. Laura is a moderate and very sensible. I immediately liked her when I heard that she wore flat shoes to the inauguration of Biden– knowing that she would be on her feet all day. I thought to myself what a sensible woman – here is someone who puts practicality above fashion. The book just made me like her even more.

Because the book was so long book club discussed it in two meetings over a month. The first meeting dealt with part one and two and two weeks later we met to discuss parts three and four.

So, what did book club think?

Parts One and Two.

Like many of the book club attendees Anne-Marie was put off reading the book because of the fact it was about the Bush family. She also mentioned the Bush’s connection to the Walker family who were notorious slave traders and segregationists in St Louis. However, after reading the book, like other members of book club, she was pleasantly surprised. She was glad that we had picked this book and said that Curtis Sittenfeld was a particularly good writer. She also said that she had read Rodham also by Sittenfeld which she also enjoyed.

Rebeca said that the first two sections of the book focused on Alice’s relationships and friends. It was an engaging read. She did feel however that it was all about ‘finding a husband’ and did little for the liberation of women. Madeleine said she identified with Alice as they were about the same age and had gotten married about the same time. Alice’s liberal outlook appealed to Madeleine and she thought the Andrew and Pete Imhoff relationships were very well described.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Michelle also loved the first half of the book. She had read the book some time ago and when she finished it she went on to read Rodham. She liked the way that Sittenfeld had re-imagined the past. It didn’t really bother her that a lot of the book was not factually true although it was true that Laura Bush did have a car accident resulting in her boyfriend’s death when she was seventeen (Andrew in the book). She said she became much more interested in fact checking in the second half of the book. Michelle had also read Eligible, Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice.

Rebeca said it was interesting to see how times had changed and that no one talked to Alice about Andrew’s death, nowadays there would be lots of therapy to discuss feelings. Madeleine said that abortion would also be less common in those days.

Both Rebeca and Madeleine commented that they loved the grandmother. Madeleine admired her for saying what she thought, particularly about Charlie’s family. She had integrity. Michelle thought that the grandmother was the type of character that Alice aspired to. She wanted to be as brash and open as her and almost revered her.

Jan felt it was a wonderful story although she too initially was put off by the fact it was about Laura Bush. She loved listening to the first two parts of the book and loved how Alice’s feelings about the prom and her family and grandmother were described. She also loved the depiction of Charlie’s Halcyon house were all the clan met with all the bedrooms and one toilet. Madeleine agreed and said the story about her pulling the toilet chain four times was very funny. Jan could remember the story of a New York millionaire who took his girlfriend to a summer house in the Adirondack’s which was a bit like Halcyon but only worse with intermittent electricity and how she had seen a boat and asked for help.

Madeleine thought that Ms Ruby was a nice vignette, and it was interesting how when Alice took her to the theatre Priscilla became enraged. Anne-Marie said that the Bush’s had a good relationship with the butlers at the White House and when the book on White House butlers came out, the favourite president was George W.

We discussed why no one had sued Curtis Sittenfeld for taking any liberties with the truth. Anne=Marie said that as public figures it is difficult to sue, you have to show malice. Libel laws are set up to favour the artist. Michelle said it must be interesting to be a public figure who was alive and written about in this way. She said Rodham would be the book that would be more likely to the subject of a libel case.

Michele loved the way that Alice’s friendship with other wives was portrayed. She also felt it was interesting how Alice forgave Charlie’s short comings. Madeleine wondered whether she was right to leave him because of his drinking and wondered if she would have done the same thing. Anne-Marie said it was more of an Americian thing to leave, the advice was not to put up with it or enable it. Madeleine agreed saying it had the right effect in the long term. Michelle said there were other issues than just merely drinking, he had a DUI and he had taken the babysitter out. There was some discussion on how things like that were covered up, for example the incident with Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne.

Madeleine felt that Alice got off lightly over the Andrew Imhoff affair. Michelle said that it had really happened but that the abortion was probably fiction. Michelle mentioned that Laura had written her own autobiography in 2010. Anne-Marie said that Curtis Sittenfeld made it clear that the book was fictionalised. Michelle said it was similar to the Crown. It was obvious that a lot of it was fiction but it was easy for people to become confused about what is fiction and what is not.

Michelle said that Curtis Sittenfeld wrote this in 2008 and that no one liked the Bush’s at the time, but over time people had forgotten how much they hated them and the critical acclaim for the book was growing.

Part Three and Four

Most people including Madeleine preferred the first two parts of the book to the second two parts. I think this was in part because they didn’t like Bush’s presidency. Rebeca, however felt that the second part was quite good and pointed out that the book didn’t mention the presidency until the last 100 pages.

Madeleine hated how Alice compromises her principles so much in her marriage. Rebeca again saw it differently and said that Alice had tried to make things right with Dina and Pete and with Edgar Franklin. She thought the fact that she had gone to try and make amends with Dina and Pete showed she was a well-rounded character.

As Madeleine pointed out Alice had a lot to put up with, but she was disappointed she didn’t stand up to him more, even if she didn’t vote for him as president. Stephanie said it reminded her of how Hillary stood by Bill even though he was a philanderer. Stephanie loved the book and said she couldn’t say anything against it.

There was some discussion about the Halcyon home. Many felt it was a sign of the privileged life that the family lived, but Diana pointed out it was much more common to have second homes in America and you didn’t have to be rich to have one. Stephanie said even if that was the case that this particular summer home oozed an upper class feel despite only having one loo. Madeleine said it was like second homes of the British aristocracy that didn’t have heating.

Anne-Marie felt that she had trouble sustaining her interest in the book because the book was about the Bush’s but she did find the writing of a high standard.

There was some discussion about what was truth and what was fiction. Stephanie didn’t think Laura Bush had an abortion in real life and pointed out she actually had two daughters. She was a librarian but was from Texas. It was also true about George W’s alcoholism and finding religion.  He was also the part owner of a baseball team.

Rebeca gave this book four out of five and said she couldn’t put it down when she started it and was often reading it past midnight. Stephanie agreed that Sittenfeld was a very good writer and Madeleine wondered what she was currently working on. Stephanie recommend her short stories and said her book Prep was also very good.

Michelle felt that Sittenfeld wrote about women and female friendships particularly well. In this book her struggles with Dina were particularly well written. Michelle felt that Sittenfeld made you contemplate your own situation and your own marriage and ask if you are culpable for the sins of your spouse even if you’re not first lady. Should a spouse have culpability for policy issues even if she wasn’t elected and should she have any role?  She questioned whether Alice (Laura) really had any say in the picking of the vice president.

Stephanie felt that Sittenfeld skirted away from political issues. But she did feel that Alice (Laura) must have felt conflicted if she was a progressive. Rebeca said she knew what she was getting into from the outset.  Stephanie said she probably thought she could take a back seat but was drawn in. Jo who hadn’t read the book asked if it was the case in America that the First Lady had to be involved. Michelle said that they were not supposed to have a role in policy. Hillary however was very involved. Stephanie felt that it didn’t seem as if Alice was after fame or notoriety or was overly ambitious. Rebeca agreed and said she didn’t seem like a gold digger. She was a small town librarian. Anne-Marie agreed but said in Texas success was measured by your ability to marry an Alpha male and that Bush was from an important dynastic family. Michelle said he married him despite those things. She also said it was interesting that she married him when she was in her thirties.

I would recommend this book whether or not you like George W. It is a superbly written, interesting, fictionalised account of a fascinating woman.

Interview with the author

Future Books

1st March The Bell Jar By Sylvia Plath

15th March –Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Movies to See

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on you tube.

The Autobiography of Ms Jane Pitman – you tube

Ted Lasso on Apple TV – an Americian football coach moves to the UK to manage a soccer team

Children of Men staring Clive Owen and Michael Cane a science fiction thriller – to purchase on prime movies

The Dig– The story of the Sutton Hoo find on Netflix

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