Being Laura Bush
Novelist Curtis Sittenfeld peeks inside the life of a first lady
An intensely private, bookish woman meets a charming but aimless man who is the least accomplished sibling in a dynastic political family. They fall in love and marry, then the man begins a rapid political ascent: first serving as governor, then as a president who presides over an increasingly unpopular war. Sound familiar? While American Wife is technically a work of fiction, it is a thinly veiled account of Laura and George W. Bush's courtship and rise to the top of American politics. Even before the book's release this month, author Curtis Sittenfeld already had garnered major buzz in the blogosphere.
Published just in time for the fall elections, the book depicts the first wife as a woman with quietly moderate values who underwent an illegal abortion as a teenager. Sittenfeld burst onto the literary scene at age 29 with her bestseller, Prep, which was selected as one of the New York Times top 10 books of 2005. Following that success, she soon established a reputation as a novelist and essayist prone to speaking her mind in various high-profile media outlets. She caused a minor dust-up when she skewered chick lit in a 2006 Times essay, raising the ire of chick lit queen and fellow best-selling author Jennifer Weiner (Sittenfeld says the two are now friends who even read each other's drafts).
In 2004, Sittenfeld wrote an essay for Salon.com proclaiming her love for Laura Bush. In the piece, Sittenfeld declared: "I'm a 28-year-old woman, a registered Democrat, and a staunch enough liberal that I take would-be epithets such as 'flaming,' 'knee-jerk' and 'bleeding-heart' as compliments. I believe that George Bush's policies are at best misguided and at worst evil. And yet I love Laura Bush. In fact, there is no public figure I admire more." Sittenfeld went on to explain the basis for her ardor, based largely on Laura Bush's indifference to clothing and array of liberal friends.
Fast-forward to 2008. Speaking to BookPage from her home in St. Louis, Sittenfeld says despite her personal politics, her new novel is not a screed against the current president, but rather an attempt to understand a famous yet largely mysterious American figure.
"I don't think the world is looking to me for opinions on the Bush administration," Sittenfeld says with a laugh. "The book is obviously inspired by Laura Bush, but it's not about Laura Bush. It sort of examines the questions around her. She's just incredibly intriguing to me. Even though she has this high approval rating, people don't know much about her."Funny and self-deprecating, Sittenfeld conveys a warmth and light-heartedness that seems at odds with the serious subjects she so often chooses to write about. In fact, she is so down-to-earth she doesn't even tell people what she does for a living.
"I don't think I've ever said I'm a novelist, because it sounds pretentious," she says. "I say freelance writer because it dissuades people from asking more questions. I just don't think it's that interesting!"
Recently married, Sittenfeld was preparing for a delayed honeymoon in British Columbia, followed by a book tour to support American Wife. She seems eager to talk both about the book and its inspiration, saying she was struck by the perception that Bush is a "stiff proper person—people often say she's a Stepford wife, but she's actually an intellectually engaged person."Indeed, in American Wife, Alice Lindgren is a voracious reader, strong-willed and slyly funny. The only child of devoted parents, she grows up in middle-class suburban Wisconsin. At 17, Alice causes a car accident that kills her classmate, Andrew Imhof, an event that mirrors a similar real-life incident: 17-year-old Laura Bush in 1963 ran a stop sign and killed a classmate. Alice is devastated by the accident; her blossoming romance with Andrew is cut short, and she is plagued the rest of her life by wondering "What if?" After an ill-advised series of encounters with Andrew's grieving older brother, Alice finds herself pregnant. Her grandmother guesses the truth and whisks her off to Chicago for an abortion. Later, Alice tries to put the whole chapter of her life behind her.
The following years of college and career as a school librarian are a quiet time for Alice. She dates a series of unremarkable men before meeting Charlie Blackwell at a party. Sittenfeld describes the future president in this memorable passage: He was undeniably handsome, but his bearing was cocky in a way I didn't like: He was just over six feet, athletic-looking, and a little sunburned, with thick, dry, wavy light brown hair of the sort that wouldn't move if he shook his head. He also had mischievous eyebrows and a hawk nose with wide nostrils, as if he was flaring them at all times. This lent him an air of impatience that I imagined enhanced his stature in the view of some people—implying that he had other, more interesting places to go, that his attention to you would be limited.
With his good looks and self-assured demeanor, Charlie sweeps Alice—the perfect wife for a politician, he thinks—off her feet. They marry within months, and Alice soon quits her job to raise their daughter and support her husband's burgeoning political career. But in the ensuing years, Charlie's drinking and lack of focus threaten to ruin their marriage.
American Wife is a sparkling, sprawling novel that's at its best when it delves into the smallest details of Alice's life: her first visit to her future in-laws' self-consciously rustic summer compound; coping with her husband's alcoholism; her conflicted feelings about being married to a born-again Christian with White House aspirations. A ridiculously gifted writer who has in the past had a tendency to lean on her talent with prose to the detriment of a strong plotline, Sittenfeld has harnessed her talents perfectly in American Wife, producing an exhilarating epic infused with humor, pain and hope.
One question remains about Sittenfeld's latest work: Will Laura Bush, a well-known bookworm, read American Wife? It's a question many will be asking about this potentially explosive new book, but your guess is as good as the author's.
"I would think not," Sittenfeld says. "She's the focus of a lot of attention, so I'm sure she's used to it. I think it's possible, but I would guess she won't. Someone who knows her or works for her will read it and give her the gist."
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.