Curtis Sittenfeld's An American Wife is another fact/fiction mash-up. Is that all anybody is writing these days?
Unlike Daphne and The 19th Wife, both of which place a real-life person in a partially fictionalized setting, An American Wife takes a more traditional approach. It's a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush, but she is never identified as Laura Bush, and instead is called Alice Blackwell. Her girlhood is transferred from Texas to Wisconsin, her husband is called Charlie Blackwell, and she's given one daughter instead of two. Otherwise many of the details are based on the circumstances of Laura Bush's life, including a tragic automobile accident that occurred in her teens, her career as a school librarian, and her obvious ambivalence about her role as First Lady of the U.S.
I tried to approach this book purely as a work of fiction, and as such, it worked beautifully. I really loved reading it, and I loved Alice Blackwell. I could even see why Alice married Charlie, and why she stayed with him. Their relationship is complex and multilayered, like most marriages. It's a very mature, insightful book, considering the relative youth of the author (who is in her early 30s now).
The trouble comes when you think about the story in light of what you know about the Bushes. Laura Bush was always an enigma as First Lady. Because I had no particular preconceived ideas about her, it was easy for me to connect with Alice Blackwell. If Laura Bush is at all like her fictional alter ego (which seems to be true, according to independent sources), then I think I would very much enjoy a long afternoon with her.
But I really didn't like having good feelings about George Bush, even a fictionalized George Bush. Charlie Blackwell is well-drawn; he's crude, impulsive and judgmental, but he's also warm and funny, and he loves Alice and their daughter with all his heart. I just kept saying to myself, "It's only a novel. It's okay to enjoy it."
A lot has been written about this book. The piece I liked best was published in Salon in the fall of 2008. It's a long interview with Sittenfeld, and in it she addresses a lot of the issues that preoccupied me as I was reading the book.
Madison readers will enjoy the parts of this book that are set in southern Wisconsin, where Alice Blackwell grows up; Madison, where she attends UW; and the Milwaukee suburbs, where she lives after her marriage. Sittenfeld does a good job capturing Midwestern reticence and the conflict between liberal Madison and the Blackwell family's ultra-conservative politics.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.