Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife grabbed me on page one, in the presidential bedroom. The wife, a cameo Laura Bush, questions her choices and ponders her unique situation given her regular midwestern roots. Alice can’t sleep while her husband snores. This fictional memoir can be funny and very personal. It is painfully true to our times. Along with Barack Obama’s memoirs (my blog on the first,) American Wife is “the book” to read this election season.
Bowdoin College, Maine
where my husband teaches politics
where my husband teaches politics
American Wife follows the president’s wife from her small town childhood to the White House. Sittenfeld is a master of creating a sense of place. By the book “she writes what she knows.” The author was raised in the midwest like her protagonists in American Wife and in Prep, her first novel. She taught at a similar exclusive prep school. In Prep I pictured a campus like Bowdoin College’s.
Sittenfeld’s descriptive prose is lovely and not overdone. Her writing is understated and truly beautiful in places, and yet it’s quiet enough not to distract you from the first person narrative. You see the world through her eyes. Alice is a totally sympathetic character. In this way Sittenfeld’s third novel is the opposite of her first novel, Prep, with its unlikable protagonist. She has grown as an author.
I find the midwestern setting in Sittenfeld’s writing personally appealing. My mother’s family is from Kansas City. My aunt Virginia Huber lives in Madison, Wisconsin where part of American Wife is set. I can also relate to small town life after moving to Maine. American Wife will give you a real sense of the American heartlands, and it does so lyrically.
If the strengths of American Wife are the protagonist, the setting and the fine writing, then the weakness is the caricature husband, the president. There isn’t much nuance between Sittenfeld’s kind-hearted Democrats and her spoiled, wealthy Republicans. The story also rambles a bit like a memoir. It still is a book well worth reading and admiring.
So how do I choose the books I review? I look for books that I think I’ll like so the book list in my sidebar is recommended reading as opposed to critical reviews. I never give an ending away or reveal too much of a book’s plot as I hate it when critics spoil a book I plan to read.
I read commercial as well as literary fiction, with an interest in books that straddle that divide. I’m especially interested in new releases. I’m a sucker for good writing and books that tackle the issues. Character and setting matter. I want to fall in love. What I look for in my reading is what I aspire to in my writing. The best teacher is a good book. Having a unique voice is important too.
My reviews are short and part of the personal story I’m telling. I have never torn apart a book in my blog because I would share the author’s pain. I’m an aspiring novelist myself, and authors are habitual self-googlers. I’m still going to be honest about a book’s strengths and weaknesses.
I first heard about American Wife in my most trusted book review source, The New York Times. I also read reviews in People Magazine, The New Yorker etc. That etc. gets shorter every year. Sadly, book reviewing seems to be a dying art in the print media. Newspapers keep cutting those sections. Then again newspapers aren’t doing well either.
Happily book reviewing is finding a second life in blogs. It was author/blogger Jane Green who urged me to read American Wife. The novel had favorable reviews, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. I’m no fan of the Bush administration, with markets crashing and the war even less so. Add to that, I like to think of women as more than wives, but American Wife was so much more than that. Thank you, Jane!
Readers: What was the best book you’ve read lately and why?
How did you choose it?
Gardeners: these wildflowers are the only thing left blooming in my garden. What are they called? The leaves are at peak color in Maine. I’ll have more photos next week from the our White Mountains hike over Columbus Day Weekend. This post is part of Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day. Visit to see what else is blooming around the world or to add a link to your garden post.