American Wife asks -- what's it like to lie awake at night, beside a snoring George W. Bush, and wonder where it all went wrong? Well, we've all been there.
Would you sacrifice your own political convictions for the man you love? The story is narrated by a Midwestern girl with Democratic leanings who marries the most aimless member of a Republican political dynasty, a genial clown for whose family of glib plutocrats Sittenfeld clearly feels a Fitzgeraldian fascination. When our heroine tries to get a separation from her husband, he reacts by becoming born again, going off the bottle, and stumbling into history.
In a characteristic joke, Charlie Blackwell claims he runs for office "for the same reason a dog licks his balls -- because I can." Although Blackwell is a product of Wisconsin and Princeton, rather than of Connecticut/Texas and Yale, we're forced to visualise him as George W. Bush when Sittenfeld writes "he was rattled that I hadn't immediately accepted his invitation -- I could tell by the way the corners of his smile collapsed a little," or describes him looking "surprised but still not entirely serious." Those of us who lived through the last eight years won't be able to erase from memory the slow, sickly decay of Dubya's smirk -- but as readers we can hope that the character of Charlie Blackwell will be remembered long after Bush himself becomes as obscure a figure as Rutherford B. Hayes.
American Wife is as full of expert twists as a Lionel Shriver novel. Making Charlie Blackwell afraid of the dark is a touch of genius on Sittenfeld's part, and the image of him twisting to "Twist and Shout" seems a delibrate echo of the tour de force moment in Alan Hollingshurst's The Line of Beauty where Margaret Thatcher dances to "Get Off of my Cloud." Another cool motif is that Alice Blackwell, a former librarian, is preoccupied with children's books throughout the novel, although for some reason we never get to see Charlie Blackwell reading "The Pet Goat" on 9/11.
Sittenfeld writes, "Was this what marriage was, the slow process of getting to know another individual far better than was advisable?" Words that should be included in everyone's wedding ceremony -- or even better the following: "I had the fleeting thought that we are each of us pathetic in one way or another, and the trick is to marry a person whose patheticness you can tolerate."
As Joyce Carol Oates said in her review of the book, "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." Any marriage, like any Presidency, will wind up landing you in situations you didn't sign up for. Sittenfeld allows us to feel how artificially the public identitiy of a first lady is constructed -- what it's like when even your household pet was chosen by a poll, and you have to suffer the indignity of being told to get a facelift by someone with a face like Karl Rove's. Alice Blackwell challenges us, "I did not contradict myself; I live a life that contains contradictions. Don't you?" and asks, "Isn't your legacy not the one or two exceptional gestures of your life but the way you conducted yourself every day, year after year?" Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner? Either way, this one's a keeper.