The makings of a first lady

2009-01-28 00:00

This is a wonderful coming-of-age tale with some adroit social commentary. It’s written in the first person by Alice Lindgren who grows up an only child in a small Wisconsin town with her kind but staid parents and her rather more colourful grandmother. Alice casts a cool but sympathetic eye on a world that widens as she grows up and suffers tragedy and loss. She works as a school librarian and she meets the irrepressible Charlie Blackwell and, to her own surprise, falls in love with him.

Charlie comes from a wealthy Republican family and Alice’s description of her first meeting with the extended Blackwell family at their holiday retreat with its furnishings grandly faded and only one bathroom with iffy plumbing serving 18 people — almost all hard drinkers — is brilliant, and the competitive, rambunctious family relationships are also well captured. It makes one laugh and squirm with embarrassment all at the same time.

Curtis Sittenfeld (although a Democrat) has made no secret of her admiration for Laura Bush, former first lady of the United States. Alice has much in common with Laura Bush and the novel explores questions that arise out of Sittenfeld’s interest in her life and status. This novel is more about personal relationships than it is about politics. However, the nature of fame, power and influence, and the obligations that come with public office intrude as Alice’s husband Charlie Blackwell becomes a state governor and, finally, the president of the United States.

Only part of the interest of the book comes from its characterisation of the Bushes — although it’s hard to think of George W. Bush without being reminded of the Charlie Blackwell character. Charlie’s dialogue is hilarious and one cannot help warming to his spontaneity. His sincerity is often twinned with a vulgarity that can be disarming or dismaying — and sometimes even despicable.

Even without the hook to the Bushes, the novel succeeds admirably as an examination of the nature of a marriage and the intricate compromises that such a relationship entails.

Although seemingly straightforward, Alice is a fascinatingly complex character. The book is brilliantly written — sensitive, serious, touching and droll. One of the best books I’ve read in ages.

Carol Brammage

• Time magazine rates American Wife third in its 2008 list of top fiction.

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