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Susan’s Bookshelves: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a someone who used to be a colleague and has morphed into a friend. My friend is now in her late eighties and hailed originally from Chicago. When we repaired to her house for post-lunch coffee/tea, I noticed a big fat paperback on her garden table, her bookmark tucked in at about the half way point. “Have you read that?” she asked when she saw me looking. “It’s really good”. So I sat there on her patio and ordered it on my phone – partly out of politeness to her.

I have now read it and can confirm that it is the most riveting read I’ve enjoyed in a very long time. Although there’s nothing childish about the content, in some ways the whole experience reminded me of childhood because I kept sneaking off into corners to read just a few more pages and carrying on reading long after I should have been going something else. I could almost hear my father’s exasperated voice saying “For goodness sake, Susan, put that wretched book down and lay the table/ get ready to go out/come and talk to Grandma [or whatever]”.

Published in 2008 the book is a first person account of a woman whose husband became President of the USA in the early years of the 21st century. We know that from the beginning because she is unravelling her life story retrospectively while dropping hints about her present life. The reader, of course, pants with curiosity and compulsively turns the pages, wanting to know how a woman whose origins are so ordinary ended up in the White House.

Alice grew up modestly in small town Winsconsin influenced by her feisty grandmother who moved in after the death of her father. Eventually – a dreadful accident nothwithstanding – she becomes a pretty contented elementary school librarian with a couple of relationships behind her. Then she meets Charlie Blackwell and, thereby forfeiting a long term friendship, falls in love with him.

Now Blackwell – son of the former state governor and with one of his several brothers in politics – is not George Bush the younger but there are similarities and the time is more or less the latter’s era. Blackwell is bumptious, often outrageous and exasperating  but very loveable, vulnerable even, behind the scenes, There’s a faint hint of Trump and even Boris Johnson although I doubt that 14 years ago when this book was written Sittenfeld was thinking of either. Eventually – via various stepping stones Blackwell is elected President. And, of course, it’s a Republican ticket.

Alice’s sympathies are much more liberal but she promises never to disagree with him in public. Later that gets difficult when policies and people threaten to overturn Roe v Wade and make abortion much more difficult (another bit of extraordinary prescience given what has happened in real life in recent months) and the war in Iraq is killing thousands of Americans.

Sittenfeld is very good indeed about the day to day problems and pleasures faced by any First Lady. The novel is also full of insights about how it would be to be continuously surrounded by aides, assistants, advisers, security people and all the rest of it. And it’s all contrasted by with her other, earlier life in Riley where she used to drive her own car, encourage children to read and visit the grocery store whenever she liked.

It’s a huge novel full of enticing sub plots too: her grandmother’s friendship with a doctor in Chicago and Alice’s first visit to the Big City, for instance, her aborted friendship with Dena, her new friendship with her sister-in-law Jadey and much more.

But I think what I liked most about this novel is its plausibility and naturalness. Yes, it’s fiction but nothing happens or is said which isn’t totally believable. And every single character is rounded and recognisable even as they change with the passing years.

Soon I shall read Sittenfeld’s latest: a what-if? novel called Rodham (2020) which presents Hillary Clinton as she would have been if she’d never met and married Bill. I bet my octogenarian friend has read that too by now.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan

American Wife

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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