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.] Continue reading