“American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld is, first and foremost, an incredibly well-written book. The main character and first-person narrator, Alice Lindgren Blackwell, is intricately drawn, complex, and entirely believable. She rings so incredibly true that I turned to the author bio to see if it provided any insight into how a man could understand a woman’s mind so well. As it turns out, Curtis Sittenfeld is female, which makes a lot more sense.
The reader follows Alice’s life from her small-town teenage years through her marriage, along with her husband’s political career. The book is at its best when it focuses on Alice, her life, and her relationships with others. Her motivations, thoughts, and actions are shared as she progresses through her life. This book is well worth reading for Alice’s insights on marriage alone. Her relationship with Charlie Blackwell provides enough ideas and questions for an entire college “Psychology of Marriage” course.
Another intriguing facet of the book is Charlie’s career path. From an early foray into the political arena, to lollygagging in the family business, to baseball, and back to politics, his journey is fascinating to follow, especially through Alice’s eyes. I’d have liked to see the story split into two books, with the second focusing entirely on the Blackwells’ later political experiences. This one gave me enough to whet my appetite, but left me wanting more of that part of the story.
The author’s disclaimer calls the book “a work of fiction loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady.” She goes on to say that Alice, Charlie, his parents, and some of his political cohorts are recognizable (this is true), but that all other characters and incidents are fictitious. The disclaimer left me wondering exactly how much of the story that centered on real people was true. Obviously some details (names, locations) had been changed for purposes of the story, but I’m left unsure of whether or not the characterizations were meant to be accurate.
“American Wife” has left me eager to seek out authorized biographies of the real first lady and her husband in order to learn more. However, I think the book would have been stronger if a few more details had been changed and the story had been presented entirely as a work of fiction. As it stands, it shows Charlie and his family (and their real-life counterparts) in a somewhat negative light, and the reader is left wondering how much of the book was meant to be true, and how much was actually fiction.
As such, I give it 3.5 out of 5 slices of provolone. I’d have gone higher based on the quality of the writing, but lower based on the ambiguities of fact vs. fiction. All in all, despite the 3.5 slice rating, this is a worthwhile novel to read.