American Wife Falls Flat

Divided into four addresses, American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld walks us through the corresponding seasons of Alice Blackwell’s life. From humble beginnings in rural Wisconsin to Washington, DC’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we are taken on a journey which starts in uptempo earnest, but ends awash in lamentable self-discovery.

Beginning in idyllic Riley, Wisconsin, Alice lives with her mother, father, and notably liberal and eccentric grandmother, Emilie. Living the life of the stereotypical American family of the 50’s (her father holds a 9 to 5 job at Wisconsin Bank and Trust while her mother happily keeps house), Alice’s innocence and small town way of life literally come  to a screeching halt when her car hits and claims the life of a friend. This momentous event leaves Alice withdrawn and heartbroken, and left to forever contemplate the totality of the loss.

After finishing college Alice becomes an elementary school librarian.  Content with her job and living comfortably alone, her tranquil life is suddenly disrupted by one Charlie Blackwell. Like a tornado, the privileged, handsome, and charming, Charlie storms into Alice’s life, sweeping her off her feet.  After a hasty courtship and marriage, the Blackwell family ushers Alice into the elite lives of the rich and politically well-connected. While Alice navigates fresh waters, a swell of unease begins to rise as she attempts to justify living at odds with her own liberal ideology.

As Charlie climbs his way up the political ladder, Alice never imagines he will be victorious in his Republican presidential campaign. However, when he wins, Alice finds herself married to the president of the United States at one of the most turbulent times in history.  As our reluctant first lady, Alice lives a life she has never asked for nor desired.  While Charlie’s popularity among Americans wanes, Alice realizes that she is found guilty by association. It is not until she is called back to the midwest, that she regains the pieces of herself that have been chipped away over the years.

Coming out strong from the gate, Alice is a likable and sympathetic character and we merrily ride shotgun as her life unfolds. What a shame that the trip stops short of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The colorful dialogue that first captivates us turns sour as we go from engaged reader to sounding board.

Giving voice to the antiwar movement through sympathetic characters like Edgar Franklin, one must wonder if Curtis Sittenfeld has found a literary platform to express her political sentiments. Not wanting to alienate her audience, Ms. Sittenfeld goes to great lengths to present both democratic and republican views.  As we see-saw between party lines, the reader is inundated with facts and figures, ultimately turning Alice into one of the political pundits she so despises.

Politics aside, this voyeuristic approach into the life of a first lady is insightful and intriguing. Based loosely on the life of Laura Bush (who as a teen did cause a fatal accident killing her boyfriend), Curtis Sittenfeld gamely envisions the thoughts and actions of our former first lady; something not typically considered in the shadow of the president.  Does she really have a book hidden in her lap while the president is addressing the American people?

It is clear that author Sittenfeld has moved between the worlds of the middle and upper classes.  Like Lee Fiona in Prep, Alice also gives us a glimpse into the world of affluence.  Her dialogue is rich and knowing.  From the affectations of Princeton alumni to the locations and decorum of those who “summer”, Sittenfeld has obviously spent time in such circles.

After eighth grade Sittenfeld left her home in Cincinnati, Ohio, to attend Groton, a boarding school in Groton, MA, and went on to attend both Vasser College and Stanford University. It is likely that her academic endeavors also introduced her to the social schooling of the upper classes. Though she does not conceal her appreciation of the midwest, one must assume that the east coast holds a certain siren’s song for her.

-Post by Megan Shaffer