American Wife – Book Review

American Wife: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld

Release date: Tuesday, September 2, 2008

This is among the best books I have read this year.  I actually got frustrated while reading this book because it is yet another strong contender for best book of the month, and I have no idea how I am going to choose.

“American Wife” is the fictionalized story of Laura Bush from childhood to, essentially, present day.  Not knowing too much about Laura Bush – other than that she was an elementary school librarian, she killed a guy in a car crash when she was younger, and she is married to George Bush/mother of Jenna and Barbara – I have absolutely no idea how many liberties Sittenfeld took with Laura’s life, other than changing names; Laura becomes Alice Lindgren and George becomes Charlie Blackwell, of the Blackwell meat fortune.

I have never known quite what to think about Laura Bush.  It has always seemed that, if I knew more about her, I would like her a good deal more than I do her husband, but I’ve never had anything to back that up and, as a result, am fairly ambivalent about her.  Alice Blackwell, née Lindgren, however, I simply adored.  Everything about her seemed real and genuine.  She was born middle-class or lower middle-class and both reveled in and felt guilty about the upper-class lifestyle she married into with Charlie.  Similarly, when Charlie’s problems with alcohol worsened her response seemed conflicted in a perfectly reasonable way.  “American Wife” skips through some large periods of time but, in my opinion, does so flawlessly.  I felt that the important aspects of the intervening years were communicated in a natural manner; the book was already 551 pages long so I can’t imagine adding any ‘filler’ years, but nor can I imagine the story working as well if any of it was removed.

I cannot remember the last time I so identified with a character, the last time someone in a book (even in a biography or memoir) felt so authentic.  No matter how you feel about the Bush family, do not let politics get in the way of reading this remarkable novel.

Preorder this book on Amazon

16 comments to American Wife – Book Review

  • I really liked this book too! A lot of other people felt it started to drag, but I never thought so. It was just so interesting to see things from her perspective on top of the fact that she was a very compelling character.

  • I have 20 pages left!! I’ve really enjoyed it! I didn’t feel any dragging but did enjoy the first half better than the second, probably because I could relate to her more then.

  • I confess, I didn’t read your review because this is the next book up on my TBRs, and I don’t read reviews of books I’m about to read…but I’ve tagged you for a meme I started and wanted to let you know.

    I did read the opening lines here, so I’m glad to hear it’s so good. Why We Hate Us is proving to be great, if a little dense.

  • I so want to read this one.

  • It sounds like a book worth reading. I do wish though, that when basing a novel loosely on a real person’s life, the author would either include a discussion of how closely they stuck to reality, or simply not tell us that they based it on someone real.

  • Rebecca – Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you, I don’t read reviews of books I’m about to read either. I’ll try to get to that meme soon.

    Heather – Well, you wouldn’t really be able to miss that it is based on Laura Bush, so that part wouldn’t work, but I do agree that it would have been nice if she had given us some idea how much was true and how much wasn’t.

  • Charley

    It could be a while before I get around to reading this one, but it does sound compelling.

  • A fictionalized account of Laura Bush? I wonder how she feels about that. I must confess, I know little about our first lady. Sounds interesting.

  • I don’t understand why the author changed the names if it’s so obvious who they are. And why change the name to another real person’s? Or am I missing something?

  • Jeane – Well, if she didn’t change their names and wrote something that was totally false, she could possibly be sued, I would imagine. She didn’t change their names to another real person, I think perhaps I was unclear on the Charlie Blackwell part. She turned George Bush into Charlie Blackwell and made him from Wisconsin and heir to a meat fortune. I doubt there is a real Charlie Blackwell and Blackwell meat fortune.

  • Jeane, Not to spoil the book too much, but its clear that there is more than just the characters’ names that were changed, so it would be too false just to use their real names. For example, (again, not to give too much away) multiple real people have been consolidated into one character.

    What I liked was how, even though some facts were changed, the spirit of the real people seemed to come through. Then again, that could just be good writing, since who knows what the real George or Laura thinks about.

    For the rest of my opinions about the book, please visit my blog.

  • Well said, Lorin, thank you for the explanation.

  • I’ve got this book on hold at the library. I didn’t know too much about it before reading your review, but now I hope it hurries up and gets here already!!

  • That makes sense now. For some reason when I read your post, I thought Blackwell was a real person. Silly me.

  • A Pretty Mess » Blog Archive » Sittenfield’s "American Wife": Will You Be Reading It?

    […] Devourer of Books said American Wife was one of the best books she read this year. I cannot remember the last time I so identified with a character, the last time someone in a book (even in a biography or memoir) felt so authentic. No matter how you feel about the Bush family, do not let politics get in the way of reading this remarkable novel. […]