Literary Wives: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Today is the first day of the Literary Wives series!  The first book to be reviewed is American Wife (2008) by female author Curtis Sittenfeld.  It is the first of four books to be reviewed by a group of bloggers, including me.  Please click the links below to visit the other posts on this book today.  

If you have been reading along with us, feel free to add your voice to the conversation.  You can do this by commenting on any of the posts, or by leaving a comment with a link to your blog’s post about the book.

We wanted to explore the two questions below.  (I will also be commenting on other aspects of the book.)

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

american wife cover

American Wife is about Alice Blackwell, married to the president of the United States.  The book takes place in three sections: her youth and adolescence, her courtships and early marriage to Charlie Blackwell, and a few days of their span in the White House.  The characters are loosely based on George W. and Laura Bush.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the way her life was constantly defined by men.  Every chapter and episode centers around a man, whether that be Andrew Imhoff, whom she kills in a car accident, Pete Imhoff, his brother with whom she has her first sexual experiences, or Charlie Blackwell, her eventual husband.  There seems to be no point in Alice Blackwell’s life that is not defined in relation to a man.

In that sense, this book has a lot to offer in answering the question: what does this book say about the experience of being a wife?  For Alice, it means being defined by that role.  Yet, she finds power in that role, too.  I the mid-section of the book, she must deal with Charlie’s alcoholism.  She eventually does so by leaving him for a short time.  It works.  He finds God, stops drinking, and their marriage is happier for it.  This episode shows that a wife’s responsibility is several things.  Perhaps to be strong for her husband strong enough to “punish” him?

It also shows that a wife should stick by her husband. This is reiterated by Alice’s mother-in-law Priscilla, who points out that being a wife is a job.  “You’re a housewife, my dear.  It is your duty to ensure that your house runs smoothly.  Just whose income do you imagine it is that allows you the luxury of staying home?” (p. 404).

Priscilla also makes the point that it may be Alice’s fault for Charlie’s drinking, and that it is her responsibility—job even—to make sure things are running smoothly.  I dislike this logic.  It removes personal responsibility from Charlie and places women as in charge of men’s appetites.  If women are responsible for making sure their husbands are sober, making sure their husbands are sexually satisfied, and making sure that the house runs smoothly, what is left for the husband to do?  I see this logic as faulty, because it assumes that women are responsible for men’s choices and that it is a wife’s job to drag that man to “heaven” even if it is kicking and screaming or beyond his will, capability, or choice.  Why can’t Charlie be responsible for his own behavior?  In this scene, we see the heavy responsibility of being a wife, especially through the eyes of Priscilla’s generation and class.

Alice counters this view a little, when she earlier muses, “there’s no surer sign of a man who won’t make something of himself than his repeated assertions that he will” (p. 82).  But she still feels responsible.  She tells Charlie that his drinking worries her because of the possibility of his killing somebody with his car and that she would feel responsible for this.  In some sense, both husband and wives ARE responsible for one another and must reach out and reign in when needed.  Charlie senses this in some ways, when in the end, as president, he says, “You know the one person who’ll never use me?” And then he points at Alice (p. 483).  This is presented as a complication of being famous, but any marriage should be able to claim the same thing.

One of the best things about this book is the fact that Alice is a librarian, and she is constantly reading. Here is a list of the titles we hear about throughout the book.  Hopefully, I caught them all. And I have linked them to posts that I have on some of them.  I’ve put an X next to the ones I have read.  I’ve read 21 of them.

The Rise of Silas Latham by William Dean Howells (X)

The Odyssey by Homer (X)

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (some of them!)

Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl

Stop-Time by Frank Convoy

Eloise (series) by Kay Thompson

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (X)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (X)

Deenie by Judy Blume

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (X)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle (X)

Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry (X)

Autumn Street by Lois Lowry

The Westing Game by Agatha Christie

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton (X)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (no, but it’s on my nightstand)

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt

Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt (X)

A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt

The Diary of Anne Frank (X)

Locked in Time by Lois Duncan

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (X)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (X)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (X)

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (X)

The Group by Mary McCarthy

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (X)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (X)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Native Son by Richard Wright

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (X)

The Old Forest by Peter Taylor

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling

The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown (X)

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (X)

Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (X)

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (X)

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

Trinity by Leon Uris

I always like to note which books are mentioned in a novel because I had a professor who said that the libraries in books are often allusions or can reveal a pattern of some sort about the characters or the narrative.  I think this list reveals that Alice Blackwell loves to read and that she’s a children’s school librarian!

I am also interested in what American Wife had to say about being a mother.  Alice muses, “but what I did care about, what I wanted most fervently, was for her to understand that hard work paid off, that decency begat decency, that humility was not a raincoat you occasionally pulled on when you thought conditions called for it, but rather a constant way of existing in the world, knowing that good and bad luck touched everyone and none of us was fully responsible for our fortunes or tragedies” (p. 401).  I loved these words, and they stem from Alice’s adjusting to being part of a rich family and married to a rich man when she grew up so humbly.  She often uses a metaphor of the people in California who build their homes on cliffs.  She feels to be one of those people.  “Our lives were beautiful but precarious, their foundations vulnerable” (p. 335).

Here are some of the great quotes from the book:

“But hadn’t I learned, over and over, that the world was larger and more complex than I’d once imagined, and wasn’t this lesson an essentially positive one?”

“I live a life that contains contradictions.  Don’t you?” (p. 473).

“Was this what marriage was, the slow process of getting to know another individual far better than was advisable?” (p. 342).

“I’ve always had a soft spot for people who talk a lot because I feel as if they’re doing the work for me” (p. 223).

“Everyone is boring some of the time . . . What greater happiness is there than the privilege of being bored together” (p. 301).

“Go home, put on a pretty dress, some heels, and some lipstick, flirt with him, flatter him, and never forget how insecure men are.  It’s because they take themselves far too seriously” (p. 302).

“The fact of someone saying something about me, even when the someone is in my husband’s inner circle, cannot make it true or untrue” (p. 547).

There are many more plot lines and issues covered in this book.  Abortion is one, and the idea that the personal is political comes into play many times.  There is also a falling out with a good friend, in which Alice realizes that “Dena’s behavior had to reflect her frustration with her own life more than with me” (p. 189).  I think this is true for many of the conflicts we face with each other.  We often take out our disappointments and anger on other people, rather than looking at ourselves.  Doing so would be much more painful.

There are political issues, even an interesting tension between Alice, a Democrat, and her Republican husband Charlie.  There are issues of class and race, the divide between the rich and the poor, and the difficulty in crossing class lines.  There is guilt and compassion.  There’s mothering.  There is a lesbian grandmother, probably the best character in the whole book.  There is death and disappointment, and new love.  There is sin and redemption.  The novel, although seemingly about marriage, is also about so much more.  And yet marriage is tied up in all of those things.

I that sense, Alice is defined by being a wife because she must put aside her political differences and support her husband.  She breaks out of this at the end, without too much hurt, but reveals some of her betrayals. She hasn’t been completely loyal, but she says, “I have to assume there are betrayals in most marriages.  The goal, I suppose, is not to allow any that are larger than the strength of the partnership” (p. 555).

In that, she reveals that marriage really is a partnership, a relationship that should be equal and mutually beneficial.  I think the Backwells have it figured out by the end of the novel, but not without continual detours and bumps in the road.  But as I learned (about research) from theorist Wiebe E. Bijker this semester, sometimes detours can lead to main routes.

I did have a few reservations about this book, but they are the same issues that plague much of the popular fiction right now.  There is an awful lot of swearing and way too much detail about sex.  The sex isn’t Harlequin romance novel worthy, but it was definitely more than I wanted to know and more than the readers need to know.  It seemed gratuitous.

If you’d like to purchase the book, please follow this link


The next book we will be reading and reviewing is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.  Feel free to read (and post) along!

To see a description of what we are trying to accomplish with this series and a list of the books we are reading, please visit my Literary Wives Series page by clicking on the words or by clicking on “Literary Wives Series” on the toolbar at the top of my blog.