Michelle Obama is a very public first lady. We follow her fashion choices, hairstyles, arm workouts. She flaunts her organic vegetable garden, recently featured on a special episode of Iron Chef America. Her predecessor, Laura Bush? Not so much. What do we know about her pet projects? Literacy, for one — she was a librarian, after all. But the American public, while it approved of Laura Bush at rates much higher than those of her husband’s, didn’t know how she stayed in shape, what designers she wore, or what she ate. Laura Bush was a fairly enigmatic, “traditional” First Lady. At least, she seemed that way until I read American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld.
When I was in Washington, DC, last July, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which features the perennially popular First Ladies exhibit. One of Laura Bush’s inaugural gowns, a long-sleeved sequined number, was on display. I remember marveling at her tiny shoulders and narrow waist. Obviously I’ve never seen the woman in person, nor been close enough to see the size of her figure. But seeing her red gown hugging the mannequin made her seem a bit more approachable, though of course far removed from the actual museum display.
Reading American Wife is a bit like this — you catch a glimpse of what the woman is really like, as the novel is clearly modeled on Laura Bush, but so much of it is imagined that you can only confirm the outlines of the story. The true woman is more mysterious and unknown.
In short, I loved American Wife. [Spoiler alert — plot points after the jump.] I found it captivating, not only for its portrayal of a famous American woman, but also for its striking portrait of her interior world. Sittenfeld creates an ersatz Laura named Alice Lindgren, from Wisconsin rather than Texas, but who is also a librarian and who also married her husband within three months of knowing him. Charlie Blackwell, our George W. Bush stand-in, is earthy (belching and farting at will), lusty (I never cared to imagine the sex life of the Bushes, but it’s done and over with now), and legacy-driven. There are numerous other fictional dopplegangers, including a Karl Rove (the real Bush called him “Turd Blossom”; Charlie also bestows nicknames and calls his Rove “Shit Storm”), a dutiful Condoleezza Rice, a moderately less dark version of Dick Cheney, and of course the stand-ins for Poppy and Barb. The fictional version of the elder Bush is as sentimental as the real one, who has publicly shed tears on many occasions, but he’s merely a former governor in the book. Nevertheless, the sharpness of Priscilla Blackwell echoes the frostiness of Barbara Bush, who always struck me as an exacting grandmotherly figure.
Politics are, of course, present in the novel but they aren’t the overriding theme. Campaigning is an afterthought, and only the final fourth section of the book takes place in the White House. Sittenfeld is much more interested in the compromises that Alice makes over and over, whether personal, professional, or political. Alice is a bleeding heart liberal who’s pro-choice (more on that in a moment), but she stifles her political leanings for the public’s consumption. After she and Charlie marry, Alice leaves her job for good. Most significantly, she has internal demons that are based on horrors in Laura Bush’s own past, and these issues are the most affecting and resonant in the book.
As a teenager, Alice has a crush on a classmate named Andrew Imhof. She harbors a fantasy that they’ll eventually become a couple, maybe even marry. But she rips this fantasy into shreds when she runs a stop sign and t-bones the car that Andrew is driving, killing him. (Laura Bush actually was involved in a car crash as a teenager that killed a classmate, but I don’t know if there was a romantic aspect to their relationship.) This act overshadows the rest of Alice’s life, as she grovels for forgiveness from Andrew’s brother, as well as from herself. Not long after the accident, Alice goes to the Imhof household to leave an apology letter, but Andrew’s older brother, Pete, is there. Inexplicably, that afternoon they have sex. It’s not presented as a rape, because Alice implicitly consents, but it’s very much an imbalanced act, of course. She and Pete have a few more encounters like this, and the entirety of their relationship serves the plot more as entanglement and conflict than as a plausible turn of events. In fact, Alice becomes pregnant and her grandmother takes her to Chicago for an abortion. It is aspects of the plot like this that are a huge departure from what I know about Laura Bush, and they make the character of Alice complicated, if nothing else.
But Andrew Imhof complicates Alice’s life in other ways. He haunts her, even into her White House years. Here, rather than bewildering the reader, Sittenfeld manages the most heartbreaking and moving element of her story. Despite her happiness with Charlie Blackwell, Alice continues to think and dream of Andrew, young and whole and perfect. Affectingly, she sees the odd juxtaposition of a forty-year-old or sixty-year-old woman dreaming of a teenage boy she never kissed but who remains, in essence, the love of her life. Alice’s lingering romantic feelings for Andrew, mixed with her grief and guilt, are the most searing part of the story.
There’s a lot that’s funny and insightful about American Wife, but to me, as you can tell, the Andrew Imhof plot line was the strongest. Sittenfeld, who wrote Prep and The Man of My Dreams, finally has a protagonist whom readers will like and remember. What the real Laura Bush would think about her fictional portrayal is for our imaginations. I like to think that she’d be shocked and awed.