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American wife : a novel
2009
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PART I 1272 Amity Lane   In 1954, the summer before I entered third grade, my grandmother mistook Andrew Imhof for a girl. I'd accompanied my grandmother to the grocery store--that morning, while reading a novel that mentioned hearts of palm, she'd been seized by a desire to have some herself and had taken me along on the walk to town--and it was in the canned-goods section that we encountered Andrew, who was with his mother. Not being of the same generation, Andrew's mother and my grandmother weren't friends, but they knew each other the way people in Riley, Wisconsin, did. Andrew's mother was the one who approached us, setting her hand against her chest and saying to my grandmother, "Mrs. Lindgren, it's Florence Imhof. How are you?" Andrew and I had been classmates for as long as we'd been going to school, but we merely eyed each other without speaking. We both were eight. As the adults chatted, he picked up a can of peas and held it by securing it between his flat palm and his chin, and I wondered if he was showing off. This was when my grandmother shoved me a little. "Alice, say hello to Mrs. Imhof." As I'd been taught, I extended my hand. "And isn't your daughter darling," my grandmother continued, gesturing toward Andrew, "but I don't believe I know her name." A silence ensued during which I'm pretty sure Mrs. Imhof was deciding how to correct my grandmother. At last, touching her son's shoulder, Mrs. Imhof said, "This is Andrew. He and Alice are in the same class over at the school." My grandmother squinted. "Andrew, did you say?" She even turned her head, angling her ear as if she were hard of hearing, though I knew she wasn't. She seemed to willfully refuse the pardon Mrs. Imhof had offered, and I wanted to tap my grandmother's arm, to tug her over so her face was next to mine and say, "Granny, he's a boy!" It had never occurred to me that Andrew looked like a girl--little about Andrew Imhof had occurred to me at that time in my life--but it was true that he had unusually long eyelashes framing hazel eyes, as well as light brown hair that had gotten a bit shaggy over the summer. However, his hair was long only for that time and for a boy; it was still far shorter than mine, and there was nothing feminine about the chinos or red-and-white-checked shirt he wore. "Andrew is the younger of our two sons," Mrs. Imhof said, and her voice contained a new briskness, the first hint of irritation. "His older brother is Pete." "Is that right?" My grandmother finally appeared to grasp the situation, but grasping it did not seem to have made her repentant. She leaned forward and nodded at Andrew--he still was holding the peas--and said, "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance. You be sure my granddaughter behaves herself at school. You can report back to me if she doesn't." Andrew had said nothing thus far--it was not clear he'd been paying enough attention to the conversation to understand that his gender was in dispute--but at this he beamed: a closed-mouth but enormous smile, one that I felt implied, erroneously, that I was some sort of mischief-maker and he would indeed be keeping his eye on me. My grandmother, who harbored a lifelong admiration for mischief, smiled back at him like a conspirator. After she and Mrs. Imhof said goodbye to each other (our search for hearts of palm had, to my grandmother's disappointment if not her surprise, proved unsuccessful), we turned in the opposite direction from them. I took my grandmother's hand and whispered to her in what I hoped was a chastening tone, "Granny." Not in a whisper at all, my grandmother said, "Y Excerpted from American Wife: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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  New York Times Review

Is there a distinctly American experience? "The American," by Henry James; "An American Tragedy," by Theodore Dreiser; "The Quiet American," by Graham Greene; "The Ugly American," by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick; Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" and Bret Easton Ellis's "American Psycho" - each suggests, in its very title, a mythic dimension in which fictitious characters are intended to represent national types or predilections. Our greatest 19th-century prose writers from Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville through Henry James and Mark Twain took it for granted that "American" is an identity fraught with ambiguity, as in those allegorical parables by Hawthorne in which "good" and "evil" are mysteriously conjoined; to be an "American" is to be a kind of pilgrim, an archetypal seeker after truth. Though destined to be thwarted, even defeated, the pilgrim is our deepest and purest American self. The young heroines of Curtis Sittenfeld's previous novels "Prep" and "The Man of My Dreams," like the more mature protagonist of Sittenfeld's third and most ambitious novel, "American Wife," are sister-variants of the American outsider, the excluded, disadvantaged, often envious and obsessive observer of others' seemingly privileged lives. Much acclaimed at the time of its publication in 2005, the tersely titled "Prep" is not a brilliantly corrosive adolescent cri de coeur like J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," still less a powerful indictment of conformist American racist society like Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," but an unassuming coming-of-age memoirist fiction tracing the adventures and misadventures of a Midwestern girl, Lee Fiora, whose good fortune - unless it's her misfortune - is to be a scholarship student at a prestigious New England prep school called Ault. By her own definition a girl of no more than average intelligence, looks and personality, Lee is yet a sharp-eyed observer of the WASP prep-school milieu, and of her own chronically forlorn presence there; unlike her prep-school predecessor Holden Caulfield, Lee is not a rebel, but one who unabashedly envies, admires and wishes to adulate her more glamorous classmates. If Lee Fiora is a 21st-century American-girl pilgrim of sorts, her quest isn't for a searing and illuminating truth but a girl's wish to be "popular" with her peers and to be noticed - to be kissed - by the boy of her dreams, Cross Sugarman: "I was, of course, obsessed with kissing; I thought of kissing instead of thinking of Spanish verbs, instead of reading the newspaper or writing letters to my parents. ... But ... kissing terrified me, as an actual thing you did with another person, and there was no one it would be more humiliating to kiss badly than Cross." "Prep" is perhaps most notable for its refusal to make of its protagonist a figure in any way "heroic" - her angst is petty, small-minded, but utterly convincing. The "American wife" of Sittenfeld's new novel, conspicuously modeled after the life of Laura Bush as recorded in Ann Gerhart's biography "The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush" (2004), is a fictitious first lady named Alice Blackwell, née Lindgren, a Wisconsin-born former grade school teacher and librarian who comes belatedly to realize, in middle age, at the height of the Iraq war that her aggressively militant president-husband has initiated and stubbornly continues to defend, that she has compromised her youthful liberal ideals: "I lead a life in opposition to itself." As a portraitist in prose, Sittenfeld never deviates from sympathetic respect for her high-profile subject: she is not Francis Bacon but rather more Norman Rockwell. Nearness to the White House and the egomaniacal possibilities of presidential power have not inspired this novelist to wild flights of surreal satire as in the brilliantly executed Nixon-inspired fictions of a bygone era, Philip Roth's "Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends)" (1971) and Robert Coover's "Public Burning" (1977). There are no stylistic innovations in "American Wife" and very little that is political or even historical. Sittenfeld's prose here is straightforward and unobtrusive, lacking even the wry asides of the girl-narrators of "Prep" and "The Man of My Dreams," whose powers of observation are sharpened by their chronic low-grade depression; Alice is never other than "good" - "selfless" - stricken by conscience as she looks back upon the life that has become mysterious and problematic to her, like a life lived by someone not herself: "Was I mutable, without a fixed identity? I could see the arguments for every side, for and against people like the Blackwells" (her husband Charlie's wealthy, politically influential family). "Charlie ... had told me I had a strong sense of myself, but I wondered then if the opposite was true - if what he took for strength was a bending sort of accommodation to his ways." For much of its considerable length, "American Wife" seems to be, on the whole, a faithful dramatization of the life of the "perfect wife" portrayed in Gerhart's well-written and "balanced" biography: Alice Lindgren is intelligent, thoughtful, inclined to be reserved and slightly prudish, a lover of books and libraries, conventional in her devout middle-class Christian upbringing - "Good manners meant accommodating the person you were with" - who, as a girl of 17, accidentally causes the death of a high school classmate, a boy to whom she is romantically attracted, by running a stop sign at a darkened rural intersection and crashing into his car. Alice, like her real-life model Laura Bush, who had a similar accident as a girl of 17 in 1963 in her hometown, Midland, Tex., is not charged with any infraction of the law; but the death of this classmate reverberates through the novel, like a subterranean stream of repressed passion, an abiding guilt and an inconsolable sorrow: "Andrew died, I caused his death, and then, like a lover, I took him inside me." (Questioned about this incident by journalists, Alice Blackwell repeats verbatim the carefully chosen words in which Laura Bush replies when confronted with similar questions.) "American Wife" is a romance in which the dead, lost lover prevails over the living husband, no matter that the living husband is president of the United States, as, at the novel's end, the 61-year-old Alice concedes that, for all that she has been the "perfect" wife to Charlie Blackwell, it has always been the dead Andrew whom she has loved, in secret: "That dewy certainty I felt for Andrew, the lightness of our lives then - it is long gone. I have never experienced it with anyone else." An idealistic grammar-school librarian of 31 when she is introduced to Charlie Blackwell and finds herself vigorously courted by him - as, she will later learn, "marriage material for a rising star of the Republican Party" - Alice is initially overwhelmed by the crude, bullying, overbearing wealthy Blackwell clan into which it seems to be her destiny to marry: "It came to me so naturally, such a casual reaction - I hate it here," Alice thinks miserably as a houseguest at her fiance's family's summer home in northern Wisconsin, a kind of nightmare boot camp where outsiders like Alice are initiated into the Blackwells' tight-knit, fiercely loyal way of life. The mystery of Alice's life - as it is the prevailing mystery of Laura Bush's life, seen from the outside - is the wife's seemingly unquestioned allegiance to a husband with values very different from her own, if not in mockery of her own. From the start, though attracted to Charlie Blackwell as a genial, charming presence, Alice also recognizes him as "churlish," a "spoiled lightweight," "undeniably handsome, but ... cocky in a way I didn't like," shallow, egotistical, "some sort of dimwit," an "aspiring politician from a smug and ribald family, ... a man who basically ... did not hold a job" and who will demand of her an unswerving devotion to his efforts: "Alice, loyalty is everything to my family. There's nothing more important. Someone insults a Blackwell, and that's it. ... I don't try to convince people. I cut them off." HERE in embryo is the right-wing Republican's chilling partisan-political strategy, which is repellant to Alice even as - seemingly helplessly, with a female sort of acquiescence in her fate - she acknowledges feeling a "sprawling, enormous happiness" with him that sweeps all rational doubts aside: Charlie "was all breeziness and good cheer; when I was talking to him, the world did not seem like such a complicated place." Yet more pointedly, as the first lady thinks well into the president's second term: Charlie "always reminds me ... of an actor going onstage, an insurance salesman or perhaps the owner of the hardware store who landed the starring role in the community-theater production of 'The Music Man.' Oh, how I want to protect him! Oh, the outlandishness of our lives, familiar now and routine, but still so deeply strange. 'I love you, too,' I say." Though "American Wife" is respectful of the first lady, its portrait of the president is rather more mixed, cartoonish: chilling, too, in its combination of steely indifference to opposing political viewpoints and crude frat-boy humor: "'See, that's what makes America great - room for all kinds of opposing viewpoints,'" Charlie says to Alice. She continues: "I can tell Charlie's grinning, then I hear an unmistakable noise, a bubbly blurt of sound, and I know he's just broken wind. Though I've told him it's inconsiderate, I think he does it as much as possible in front of his agents. He'll say, 'They think it's hilarious when the leader of the free world toots his own horn!'" Curtis Sittenfeld surely did not intend to create, in this mostly amiable, entertaining novel, anything so ambitious - or so presumptuous - as a political/cultural allegory in the 19th-century mode, yet "American Wife" might be deconstructed as a parable of America in the years of the second Bush presidency: the "American wife" is in fact the American people, or at least those millions of Americans who voted for a less-than-qualified president in two elections - the all-forgiving enabler for whom the bromide "love" excuses all. Criticized for abjuring responsibility for her husband's destructive political policies, Alice reacts defensively: "The single most astonishing fact of political life to me has been the gullibility of the American people. Even in our cynical age, the percentage of the population who is told something and therefore believes it to be true - it's staggering." And, more provocatively: What "caught me by surprise was how the American people and the American media egged him on, how complicit they were in Charlie's cultivation of a war-president persona." Her challenge to the American public: "All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power." "American Wife" is most engaging in its early chapters, when Alice Lindgren isn't yet Alice Blackwell but an insecure young woman, haunted by the memory of the beautiful boy she'd accidentally killed as a girl yet dedicated to teaching and to a life defined by books. After she meets Charlie Blackwell and becomes his helpmeet, her independence swallowed up in his ambition, Alice seems to lose definition and, especially in the novel's final, weakest section, titled "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," to become a generic figure of celebrity proffering bromides to an adulatory public - "Gradually your fame settles on you, it's like a new coat or a new car that you become used to" and irritably defending herself against the prying media - "I don't ooze sincerity. I am sincere." At the novel's end, Sittenfeld breaks from the Laura Bush biographies to imagine for her first lady a belated gesture of rebellion regarding the Iraq war that yields but a muted air of conviction. IF there is an American gothic tale secreted within "American Wife," it's one of unconscionable, even criminal behavior cloaked in the reassuring tones of the domestic; political tragedy reduced to the terms of situation comedy, in this way nullified, erased. How to take Charlie Blackwell seriously as a purveyor of evil? We can't, not as we see him through his wife's indulgent eyes smiling "as he does when he's broken wind particularly loudly, as if he's half sheepish and half pleased with himself." The ideal American wife can only retreat into a kind of female solace of opacity: "For now I will say nothing; amid the glaring exposure, there must remain secrets that are mine alone." 'American Wife' is a romance in which the lost lover prevails over the living husband - the president. Joyce Carol Oates is the author, most recently, of the novel "My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike" and the story collection "Wild Nights!"

  Publishers Weekly Review

Sittenfeld tracks, in her uneven third novel, the life of bookish, naïve Alice Lindgren and the trajectory that lands her in the White House as first lady. Charlie Blackwell, her boyishly charming rake of a husband, whose background of Ivy League privilege, penchant for booze and partying, contempt for the news and habit of making flubs when speaking off the cuff, bears more than a passing resemblance to the current president (though the Blackwells hail from Wisconsin, not Texas). Sittenfeld shines early in her portrayal of Alice's coming-of-age in Riley, Wis., living with her parents and her mildly eccentric grandmother. A car accident in her teens results in the death of her first crush, which haunts Alice even as she later falls for Charlie and becomes overwhelmed by his family's private summer compound and exclusive country club membership. Once the author leaves the realm of pure fiction, however, and has the first couple deal with his being ostracized as a president who favors an increasingly unpopular war, the book quickly loses its panache and sputters to a weak conclusion that doesn't live up to the fine storytelling that precedes it. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved All rights reserved.
Summary
A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice Lindgren has no idea that she will one day end up in the White House, married to the president. In her small Wisconsin hometown, she learns the virtues of politeness, but a tragic accident when she is seventeen shatters her identity and changes the trajectory of her life. More than a decade later, when the charismatic son of a powerful Republican family sweeps her off her feet, she is surprised to find herself admitted into a world of privilege. And when her husband unexpectedly becomes governor and then president, she discovers that she is married to a man she both loves and fundamentally disagrees with-and that her private beliefs increasingly run against her public persona. As her husband's presidency enters its second term, Alice must confront contradictions years in the making and face questions nearly impossible to answer.
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