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.


45 thoughts on “Literary Wives: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Add yours

  1. Great review. I agree with you on pretty much every point, especially that the grandmother is the best character. I really enjoyed the first 2/3 of the book, but the last third was not as much fun to read. I guess as a rather independent woman myself, I really wanted Alice to stand up and speak about her beliefs. I wanted her to believe that she could disagree with Charlie on a fundamental level and he should still love her for it. I really did not like his character and, honestly, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have left him over leaving me after my grandmothers funeral if I were Alice. She makes a lot of excuses for him. A lot.

    Dicey’s Song was a favorite of mine as a child so I got excited when she mentioned it. Additionally, her list of books made me want to go back and read some older novels, which I very we’ll may do.

    I’m excited for the next book too!

    1. I’m so happy that you read and that you are going to read the next one! I agree. I don’t know if I would’ve stayed around after all of Charlie’s problems and his immature attitude toward it all. I think it says something about being tough, though. Alice was a tough character, despite her leniency. Yeah, the last third wasn’t my favorite part either. Thanks for weighing in!

  2. Wonderful reflection — everyone was so smart and measured I think I sound like a crazywoman in mine!

    I so love that you lifted up the reader Alice was — I did enjoy that about her, and seeing the books she mentioned — I’m always a sucker for a reader as a character.

    I had such complicated feelings while reading this book — politics are a push button issue for me so I made myself really try to empathize with Alice, and now I feel like I went too personal — and I’m really undecided if Alice had a great marriage or a terrible one.

    I found the theme of partnership overall to be prevalent in this one (Emilie was a favorite, what a firecracker!) and of course, the examples of healthy and unhealthy partnership, fulfilled and unfulfilled partnerships, and the beauty and cruelty of being partnered.

    Angela made this wonderful observation I can’t stop thinking about, how Alice tells us that she tells her husband she’ll never reveal she disagrees with him, and yet this whole book is her airing her grievances. Does this make her an unreliable narrator? I’m really quite taken with that thought, and it makes me look back on this book totally differently.

    1. I know! Angela’s post really got me thinking more deeply, and I can’t decide if Alice is unreliable. I do think she is full of contradictions, as in the quote I shared above, and in that, she comes across as very human. We are all unable to see ourselves fully and understand our actions and thoughts rationally, in my opinion. I think Alice represents this part of human nature well.

      I love your comment about the beauty and cruelty of partnership. It is both/and. I think even if we all had mixed reactions to the book and the character, the truth is that she and her choices got us thinking, and for me, that’s always a good thing. 🙂

      Thanks for the great comment, as usual, Audra! I am so glad to have gotten to know you through this project and through Ariel.

      1. I think even if we all had mixed reactions to the book and the character, the truth is that she and her choices got us thinking, and for me, that’s always a good thing.

        Agreed — this is one of those books I’ll have to say I loved because it just got me — I’ll be howling about this one for months, I know — even though I think I hated it! It was that aggravating/amazing! 😉

        I’m grateful, too, for this — I’ve always yearned for a smart book club — and I would never have picked up this book otherwise. It’s good for me to get out of my comfort zone!

        1. Oh, Audra, I am so with you on this!! All of it, but especially the “smart” part! I realize that sounds elitist, but I love to dissect and analyze books, and although I facilitate a book club, I almost always leave our discussions feeling unfulfilled, so this is wonderful to discuss with others who share my level of intensity. Perhaps that would be a more accurate term for me, a “more intense” book club! I share your ambivalence and yet fascination with this book, and yet, I also would probably NEVER have read it without this motivator.

  3. You are absolutely right in saying Alice is defined by men — that is the most accurate statement. It says it all! The extent to which she permits this, participates in it, accounts for a lot of the tension in the novel. I like how you articulate her strength, however, when you say that being strong might require even being strong enough to punish. I hadn’t thought about that.

    And thank you for calling Priscilla on her own “babying” of Charlie — I despise the idea that anyone is responsible for anyone else’s choices. Everyone has been damaged, but as adults, people need to take responsibility for their actions and choices. I read something recently that argued we are responsible TO others, but not FOR them. Thank you for making that point so succinctly.

    I LOVE that you made a list of all the books mentioned in the novel — awesome, Emily! I kept being pulled to pay more attention to the literary references, but my vision was obscured by all the other “stuff”. I didn’t realize until seeing your list how saturated the book was with titles. I wonder how the choices of these titles might be significant to the themes in the novel? That would be a project in and of itself, wouldn’t it?

    Do you think Alice was true to her convictions with regard to her motherhood? Do you think she was able to give Ella examples of the kind of way of being she describes in the quote you used? This was another area I was unsure of…I wonder what others think……

    I appreciate the breadth of things you address in your review, Emily. You’re right, the book is about so much more than marriage. Thank you for making me think about some of those other things that I had a hard time, or lacked the patience, to see. And I liked the grandmother the most, as well. 🙂

    1. I wonder what it is about the grandmother we all liked so much? Is it her authenticity, even if some of her ideas aren’t necessarily similar to my own? I just can’t put my finger on why she was my favorite, but she was. As to mothering, I’m not sure. It seems that Ella turns out well, but we really don’t see too many of the results. And is how the daughter turns out really a measure of successful mothering? Probably not. Perhaps how the daughter feels about the relationship would be more accurate. I do agree with your post that some of the mothering certainly failed in the part involving pornography. Thanks for the comment!

      1. I think I liked the grandmother because she seemed to be the perfect culmination of Alice’s loyalty and compassion, along with maintaining her own standards. Although, now that I think of it—did she? Should the grandmother have given up her life with Alice’s family to go be with Gladys? I don’t know. I’m realizing that none of us talked about Gladys, but I kinda think she provides a very interesting character. She embodies our judgment of Alice, and does try to call her out. But ultimately Gladys fails! What does that say?? I’m very much puzzling over Gladys right now.

        1. I really liked Gladys at first, and then I just hated her in the end for being so backhanded and trying to expose Alice’s “secret.” I did love what Gladys said about the personal being political, but I just cringed that she would break a medical confidence to Alice. I don’t know why that bugged me so much. Maybe because of ethics and integrity, or maybe because I really started to sympathize with Alice and she won me over toward the end.

          1. I’m completely with you, Emily, on Gladys — I found that little plot twist to be an interesting addition (like the oddly graphic sex, Sittenfeld’s decision to make Alice sleep with Pete, this sapphic relationship between Emilie and Gladys — I am so curious about *why* — what were these things meant to bring to Alice’s story arc?) — and I was so dismayed to see how Gladys turned out. (Plus, I’m always sad when lesbians are totally crazy in books.)

            I wonder if Gladys is meant to be, oh, I don’t know how to describe it — a liberal bugaboo, willing to sell out everything including her ethics to win politically — and I suspect it was to push the reader into truly sympathising with Alice when, perhaps, we might have been wavering. AND, of course, as a tiny red herring to make us thing Dena had betrayed her — thus bring about the resolution of that arc. Gladys had already broken Emilie’s heart, so we the reader would be fine with her being so vile; Dena, who seemed so selfish, was the truly selfless one in the end.

            1. Yeah, no kidding! Why did the lesbian (well, one of them) have to turn out so batty? Maybe that was just old age and not necessarily a commentary on who she really was. But I like your interpretation of it being there to resolve the conflict with Dena. That’s likely the best explanation. And I have to say, this has been SO FUN! It is like we are having our own book club through the blogs. I really wish we all lived closer and could meet up for dinner and just flesh it all out.

      2. For me, Alice’s grandmother was the one female role model in Alice’s life who made absolutely no compromises. Unless you consider her reluctance to live with Gladys, however, I contend that she realized Gladys would most likely require subservience in a daily intimate long-term relationship and hence, she remained where she could be herself and I think she wanted to serve as an additional resource for Alice, be able to present her with alternate viewpoints. Just my thoughts…

        1. I like your thoughts! 🙂 Perhaps she serves as a bit of a foil to Alice, since Alice seems to be constantly compromising. But the two characters together perhaps show the two ways a relationship can go or turn out. Her grandmother did not compromise and ended up alone, but maybe happier? Alice, on the other hand, compromises constantly, but at what cost? Great insight!

  4. I think it’s interesting that the cover itself, shows only the traditional American white wedding dress, hands gloved and poised in a posture of mute reticence, no head or face or mouth at all. hmmm….very telling? I’m not nearly as patient as you, or any of the other ladies of your book group, as I read all of your reviews I only got angry at Alice for being such a lazy decision maker. Then I wondered why I was getting so upset about a book I haven’t read and realize there are dangers in forming opinions based solely on reviews, however, I also can now make an easy decision not to read this book. It would drive me nuts and I don’t need to work through Alice’s issues. So, thank you for your thoughtful review!

    1. LOL! Yeah, you’d better not read it. Alice would drive you nuts. It was compelling, as Audra, said, in the sense that I didn’t want to put it down or stop reading either. The writing was good and the story was interesting, but maddening!

    2. Hm. I totally sympathize with your frustration! I think Alice was redeemed, in my eyes, through her small acts of betrayal, and her practical acceptance that it was betrayal. I liked that she was at once compassionate and pessimistic about the goodness of others. But her lack of gumption got to me a few times too.

    3. Denise, I had to laugh at your comments because I am SUCH a kneejerk judge — esp of books I haven’t read but I think I know! And this book IS upsetting but I will say, having finished it, I’ve run the gamut from love to loathe, and back again, and I’ve gotta admire a writer for wringing me out like this. It feels horrible and awesome.

    4. I had totally overlooked all those details about the cover! Thank you for bringing those to the discussion. Someone asked me not too long ago, “You don’t ever simply choose a book for its cover, do you?” I honestly had no immediate reply, though it did make me consider that there are times when the cover and/or title at least grab my interest enough to read the blurb on the book and/or read reviews to seriously consider it! So perhaps I do? But from your analysis, I now understand the possible connection between this cover and the story… It is the picture perfect “good little wife” in a way, isn’t it?

  5. From my review of American Wife:

    “Sittenfeld appears to be trying to paint a picture of a loyal wife struggling with the suppression of her own beliefs in order to maintain a political marriage, and she does a good job of it.

    Critics question whether Laura Bush really is that person (and Sittenfeld herself says that the book is patterned on the Bushes), but for me, that’s not important. I think American Wife is a story worth reading and it probably will make you examine your own relationships. What have you given up for for love? Thank goodness most of us don’t have to play out our lives on such a public platform!”

    Emily, I loved your take on this book and the commentary following your post. I’ve also read The Paris Wife and will be interested to see what you have to say.

    1. Jennie, I love the quote from your review. She does do a good job of imagining what it would really be like to live such a public life and marriage. I couldn’t help but think about this book when watching the Bushes on the Today Show a few mornings ago at the opening of the presidential library in their name. You ask a great question: What have you given up for love? I think that can be both a positive and negative answer! Thanks for the comment.

  6. I love that you took note of all of the books! I didn’t realize there were so many.

    I’m glad you talked about Priscilla in your review. I thought about it, but she made me too angry and I thought I would get off-topic. But seriously. What a terrible woman. I was truly disappointed in Alice when Priscilla tells Alice that it is her responsibility and “job” to go back to Charlie, and Alice actually does. I don’t think she did it entirely because of Priscilla, but I’m still wrestling with how Priscilla affected her decision to return.

      1. Good point. It was gratuitous and weird that it was based on a real president. Thanks for posting the link to the interview. I liked it! It would be hard to be an author writing about real people fictionally and to have people angry at you. Maybe she has thicker skin than I do!

      2. Oohh…interesting author interview. I’m amazed anyone could feel as if they liked Charlie! I loathed him and can’t imagine liking him, though I felt that overall he was nothing more (or less) than a product of his upbringing, as they say…

    1. Priscilla was not nice at all! I think the guilt and intimidation Alice felt in her presence contributed to a lot of the problems/decisions Alice made. I don’t, however, see Priscilla as a realistic version of Barbara Bush. I don’t think she was meant to be, though.

      1. Priscilla was horrible! Was she meant to be modeled on Barbara Bush? I will say I was fuzzy on that — if Charlie’s parents were meant to be Bush Senior and wife (with some modification). I’ve always thought of Barbara Bush as being kind of a inoffensive old lady so if Priscilla is modeled on her, that’s quite eye-opening.

        One of the things I noted — and I’m including in my review — is this bombastic, competitive, aggressively prankster-ish family dynamic that these political dynasties have. The Kennedys, the Romneys, the Bushes — is that almost cruel treatment of family members a key to surviving the political world? The world of privilege?

        Also, do any of you watch 30 Rock? I kept imagining Emilie as Colleen, Jack’s mother.

        1. I don’t think Priscilla was based on Barbara. At least I hope not. I would be disappointed to find out she was like that. The Blackwell parents were different enough from the Bush seniors that I almost think Sittenfeld was trying to not make them similar. That is just my speculation.

  7. Great review – now I want to read the book. Your review seems to get at some of the things the book’s really about – how the characters (and the author, maybe?) see the world.

  8. I read the book a few years ago and so the story wasn’t especially fresh in my mind. But your review is very detailed and brought it all back to me. I loved reading “American Wife” because of the richness of detail and the multi-faceted characters in Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing, although I agree with you about the gratuitous sex. I skimmed through those pages.

    Since reading “American Wife”, I have read Sittenfeld’s other books (“Prep” and “The Man of My Dreams”) which are both worth reading, although I think “American Wife” is probably the best out of those three. I hope she publishes another novel soon!

    1. Thank you for mentioning her other books! I have not read them, but after reading American Wife, I kind of want to. She is a skilled writer and storyteller. I’m glad my review was able to bring some of the plot back to your mind. I always forget the details of books, too!

      1. I hope you enjoy her other books if you do decide to read them. The reviews I read of “The Man of my Dreams” were all quite critical, especially about the main character, so I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy it as much as “American Wife”.
        But I read it and found that some parts of it resonated with me so much I ended up wiping away tears while I was reading. I don’t often cry over books and I certainly wasn’t expecting to cry over that one.

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