rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is certainly Curtis Sittenfeld’s most mature novel to date. Prep is probably still my favorite, for its absolute realism and perfect glimpse into the adolescent mind and emotions. Ironically, Many of My Dreams followed chronologically—it showed the life of a woman as she grew out of adolescence, through her twenties and thirties and into “womanhood.” Now, with “American Wife,” Sittenfeld continues this chronology, structuring the tone and “telling” of the book around the later, middle-aged years of the novel’s female protagonist, Alice Blackwell. (I am curious to see if her next book will be about the life of a senior citizen!)
American Wife is beautifully crafted. Sittenfeld uses the thoughtful introspection of her second novel while retaining the cohesive “plot drive” of her first as she moves the story through Alice’s life. Sittenfeld manages to link each event that Alice lives through to both the preceeding events and the events to come without slamming the reader over the head with these revelations—a feat that is certainly no small task. However, this praise does not come without its own criticism, however, because Sittenfeld clearly felt that this in-and-of-itself was not enough. When she went and began to narrate Alice’s life as the wife of President Charlie, that was when I felt the novel began to fall apart.
First of all, with all of the contemporary references to Iraq, 9/11, abortion, and the like, how are readers not supposed to identify these characters with the Bush family and administration? Living in the present and trying to fill real, speculated-upon roles with fictional characters is just not something that is feasible, never mind enjoyable, to do. If Sittenfeld wanted to write a book about what she thought Laura Bush was like without doing any actual research, then she should have done that. Likewise, if she wanted to write a generic novel about “a first lady” of “an administration,” then perhaps she could have set her novel in the future, or she could have timed her novel to come out pre-election, before any votes had even been cast for who would run for president. However, writing about a real role filled by a very public figure and casting in it a fictional character—this was the point in the novel at which I actually became disinterested. It was decidedly too much work for me to suspend my disbelief, and my mind kept trying to make connections and to determine what she was “really saying.” However, having read reviews and the forward and afterward in the book, I knew this was not the intent. It was overall a frustrating final quarter of the book for me, and I would have been quite pleased had Sittenfeld finished the novel some entirely other way—perhaps with Charlie losing the Wisconsin governor election and following some other life path entirely, thus taking Alice along with him.
All of this being said, I am intrigued to see what Sittenfeld writes next. Her novels have all followed an eerily similar arc, yet they have been very disparate, as well. I will always recommend Prep first, to those who have never read her, but American Wife will remain on my list of recommendations, if merely for a conversation piece, because I am sure many other readers will disagree with me about the last fourth of the book.
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