American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Overall, this was a great read...well-written, emotional and thoughtful, drawing you in and holding you(almost) to the end. It was just a short, fleeting bit into the book that I was forming attachments to the characters(particularly Grandma Emilie, early on. Loved her!), feeling a vested interest in their personal journeys and anxious to see what was ahead.
Though the main character, Alice Lindgren Blackwell, and her story are openly acknowledged as being "inspired by" and "loosely based on" the life of Laura Bush, the term "loosely" is offered a bit too generously. Yes, a good portion of this novel is product of the author's imagination; the items that are not, however, play such a dominate role in the story line and the realization of the characters, that you have to set a periodic mental alert to pop in and remind you that it is not a biography.
The book is divided into four sections, aptly named for the address of Alice's home at that time in her life, and is composed through a balance of moving plot and insightful narrative. This moves the most quickly in the early sections, as we see Alice as a sweet, naive Wisconsin teenager, mostly concerned with boys and books, who finds herself learning very adult lessons at the age of 17 after killing a classmate(whom she also had potential for a romantic future with) in a car accident of which she was at fault. We see the first hint that this tragic event will play a factor in her future, but don't know yet to what extent. It then moves seamlessly through college and her years as an elementary school teacher and librarian, on to her first meeting with Charlie Blackwell, the youngest son of a former governor and her future husband. At this point, her perspective changes as we move with her from middle-class, small town, banker's daughter and librarian, to a wealthy, respected member of a prominent family. THroughout it all, even when we start to lose Alice a bit and see more focus on what's around her, she remains calm, steadfast, and in the background to loud, boisterous husband - while he constantly worries about his "legacy", she ponders to herself that your legacy should not be about what accomplish, rather how live your life. The story seems to almost fall off when you reach the last section, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. After an engaging, endearing and quick moving 430 pages, it almost seems as thought Sittenfeld took a step back, realized she hadn't even begun to cover their life in the White House, and had to get it over with without doubling the size of the book. This section contains much shorter sections of present-tense plot, and much longer sections of narrative, primarily Alice's internal analysis of how she has lived, how she wants to live, questioning her decisions and her path. While there are some elegant and thought provoking moments here, this last 130 pages probably took me longer to read than the entire rest of the book...I was just not held into it in the same way.
Overall, not a must-read, but most definitely a worthwhile one.
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