'American Wife' by Curtis Sittenfeld
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The new novel from best-selling author Curtis Sittenfeld begets a new fictional genre -- "thinly veiled biographical portrait."
It functions as the life story of first lady Laura Bush while reading like a novel.
Let me start with the sensational part first. Sittenfeld supposedly rushed to finish this novel before the Bushes left office so as not to lose any marketing potential.
The publication date coincided with the start of the Republican National Convention with the hope that readers would want to know more about Mrs. Bush, who, for eight years, has been virtually lost in her husband's wake.
By Curtis Sittenfel
Random House ($26)
We catch glimpses of her every once in awhile but unlike other first ladies, she doesn't strike a very forceful, even intriguing, pose.
And once she leaves the White House, she most likely will not leave any lasting impression, good or bad.
That seems to be Sittenfeld's premise in presenting this fictional biography, a term that allows her liberty without any fear of libel. She uses real events from Laura Bush's life but creates many of her own. The result is a melange of the real and the imaginary.
In establishing her own literary genre, Sittenfeld has guaranteed that she won't end up shamefully asking for redemption on Oprah's TV couch but she's also excused herself from doing any research that a biography would have demanded.
It's become a trend in the literary world -- emotion triumphs truth. The result is a puzzling collage, not of the president's wife, but a young woman who eventually marries the man who becomes president. There's a huge difference there.
Certainly one of the most devastating events in Laura Bush's life happened when she was only 17. She killed a fellow classmate, a boy she supposedly loved, in a car accident.
Sittenfeld muddies the emotional aftermath of the distressing event, adding sensational fictitious elements such as a sexual relationship with the dead boy's brother, an abortion, and the discovery of her grandmother's lesbian relationship with a female doctor in Chicago.
The drama erases any of the emotional analyses another author might have explored in the character of Alice Blackwell (Laura Bush) had she simply suffered the agony of the accident.
George Bush arrives on the scene in the guise of Charlie Blackwell, a good ol' boy from a political family.
He likes to party, he's stupid and seems to have picked up Alice at a backyard barbecue because her feelings and beliefs will be easy to muzzle. As the book progresses and the political career of Blackwell soars, that's exactly what happens.
Alice's character and all her strong beliefs, so apparent in the beginning of the book, have been stifled by the love she has for this man, this president of the United States.
"American Wife" uses many of the same narrative techniques as Sittenfeld's first novel, "Prep." There's almost no plot, which is to say that the book is more of a collection of extraordinarily well-written scenes connected by a certain element.
In "Prep," it was four years of high school. Here it is a life moving forward. When you finish each book, you come away with a sense of not what happened but a sense of what that person or that place looks like.
There's an old-fashioned sweetness in the creation of Alice Blackwell. Scene by scene, the reader is pulled into her world and roots for her.
She's smart and interesting, determined and original. She loves to read and creates giant papier-mache characters from children's books to decorate the school where she is a librarian.
Alice is astute and strong, but falls in love with a man who is clearly her intellectual inferior. There's no crime in that.
But the inevitability of the novel flattens out with the real-life events of the Bush administration.
Sittenfeld did such a brilliant job in creating and developing Alice Blackwell's character that when she allows her to become a doormat of a first lady, who neither believes in her husband nor has a platform or opportunity for her own personality to further develop, is, frankly, boring.
I was rooting for the fictional Alice to do something wild -- run against her husband or become an astronaut or hook up with her grandmother's lover. So it was strange that at the very moment Sittenfeld needed a fictional creation, she stuck to the facts.
First Published September 14, 2008 12:00 am