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American Wife, By Curtis Sittenfeld

As Laura Bush leaves, this First Lady tells her conflicted tale

Reviewed,Mary Flanagan
Tuesday 25 November 2008 01:00 GMT

I began American Wife expecting a sharp political satire. I found instead a forensic examination of a woman's psyche. The wife in question is Laura Bush, and it was Curtis Sittenfeld's inspired idea to cast the First Lady as Alice Blackwell, her heroine. A children's librarian from Wisconsin, Alice marries rich alcoholic wastrel Charlie Blackwell, who astounds everyone by first becoming "born again", then US President. Sittenfeld's characters are painfully, sensually, infuriatingly alive. Her realist style is fluid and first-person-narrative compelling.

Alice is a small-town only child raised in a modest household by devoted parents. Studious and well-behaved, she's reared on caution and responsibility. Her dull surroundings are enlivened by her witty and outspoken grandmother. Granny's affair with Dr Wycombe, an eminent female surgeon, awakens Alice to a more liberated world.

We occupy Alice's consciousness as she moves from high school to independence and political awareness. She falls for Charlie's "raunch and swagger", tolerating his "smug, ribald family": a tyrant mother, boorish brothers and ex-Governor dad. But quiet Alice has secrets to keep. She's haunted by the memory of Andrew Imhof, a handsome, gentle boy she loved at 17 but accidentally killed in a head-on collision. Grieving and guilt-ridden, she instigates an affair with his brother, who leaves her pregnant. Dr Wycombe performs an abortion, kept under wraps even when Alice later outs herself as "pro-choice".

The Blackwells are portrayed as a loyal and loving couple. Charlie is brilliantly drawn, more articulate than his prototype, but his wife's inferior in every respect save humour. Yet she supports all his calamitous policies. With her face-lift and Ferragamo shoes, Alice becomes a paragon of harmless tolerance. She buries her noble scruples, with tiresome justifications of her "conflicted" state. When at last her conscience forces her to speak out, she's accused of betraying her country.

I was uneasy about the author's real opinion of Alice. So completely does she inhabit her character that she seems to vanish into her accomplished creation. Did she forgive her? We will soon be shot of the Bushes. My only regret is that Sittenfeld's novel is far too good for them.

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