In a coy little note preceding her radioactive, Republican-baiting scandal bomb of a novel American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld writes that the book was “loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady.” She means loose here in the sense that gymnasts’ ponytails, hipster jeans, third face-lifts, and sheets on military bunks are loose. In fact, the novel clings like blow-dried Saran wrap to the famously implausible biography of Laura Bush, a shy librarian with Democratic leanings who ended up married to the most destructive right-wing frat boy in the history of the world.
Although the book contains a healthy handful of scandalous passages—the Laura Bush character having explosive diarrhea in her future in-laws’ bathroom, the George W. Bush character as chivalrous devotee of oral sex who speaks in soft-porn dialogue (“Alice, I aim for total customer satisfaction”)—things certainly could have been worse. Sittenfeld must rank fairly low on any First Lady’s list of Most Terrifying Novelists Who Might Someday Write a Fictional Autobiography. A self-proclaimed liberal, she publicly revealed her guilty love for Laura four years ago, and American Wife is clearly the offspring of that transpartisan romance. While the novel is occasionally funny (and sometimes, in its sex scenes, unintentionally hilarious), it is far from political satire. It’s a patient, hyperearnest character study. Laura Bush’s very existence seems to strike Sittenfeld as a challenge to the humanizing magic of the novel: She’s the Great White Whale of American cognitive dissonance, an icon of inhuman distance in a culture that demands constant superhuman close-ups.
The Bushes are the Blackwells, a powerhouse Wisconsin family that made its fortune in meat. Laura is rechristened, fittingly, “Alice,” and the book charts her journey through the political looking glass. Sittenfeld’s strong suit as a novelist, first exhibited in her boarding-school debut Prep, is the psychodrama of youth—the scattershot vividness of early memory, the g-force intensity of adolescent love—and accordingly, the best pages in American Wife describe Alice’s childhood. She grows up in a little dairy town in an archetypal fifties middle-class nuclear family—repressed bank-manager father; repressed homemaker mother; sassy, widowed, secretly lesbian live-in grandmother. The character of Alice jibes pretty much exactly with my impression of the actual Laura—dutiful, self-serious, reserved—and, in a nice touch, her interior monologues about fame, politics, and morality exhibit a restless, tortured self-consciousness that kept reminding me of the real-life Laura’s favorite novelist, Dostoyevsky.
One of the miracles of American Wife is that it manages to make Charlie Blackwell, the George W. Bush doppelganger, seem genuinely lovable. True, Charlie spends much of the book as an extended version of Will Ferrell’s Dubya impression—when Alice has to speak on a breast-cancer panel, for instance, he calls it a “titty summit” and asks if she needs help with a self-exam. But Sittenfeld also sells the appeal of his doofus act: It’s the vital, open, lighthearted yin to Alice’s stuffy, self-conscious yang. As she puts it, “He was all breeziness and good cheer; when I was talking to him, the world did not seem like such a complicated place.”
Laura Bush may be a great novelistic subject, but American Wife doesn’t quite work as a novel. Its final section—Alice and Charlie in the White House, embroiled in all the familiar controversies of the Bush regime—is deeply disappointing. Charlie reverts to the media cliché of Bush as incompetent puppet while Alice devolves into a liberal fantasy, an outspoken dove in a nest of hawks. In the end, the book is most fascinating as an object lesson in the complications of publicness, a currency it courts and deconstructs. Alice is both tortured and fascinated by “her own public distortion.” Although she believes that “no one’s true self was the business of more than a very small number of family members or close friends,” she also admits to being complicit in her own fame: “The true enduring kind must be constantly burnished and enhanced. It never happens by chance.” Late in the book she rattles off an unsettlingly long list of people from her life who have spoken about her to the press. (Knowing that Laura, too, is apparently mortified by the slightest public attention just adds extra frisson to Sittenfeld’s project.)
American Wife is a scandalous book about the mechanics of scandal, and as such it’s obsessively canny about the nature of the very questions it raises. In a masterful stroke of parasitic publicity, the book’s release was timed to coincide with last week’s Republican National Convention, and once again, reality came through. The convention’s gossipy drama about a candidate’s pregnant teenage daughter turned out to reinforce the novel’s theme as well as Alice, or even Laura herself, ever could.
By Curtis Sittenfeld.
Random house. 558 pages. $26.