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BOOK REVIEW

This 'Wife' seems familiar

American Wife A Novel Curtis Sittenfeld Random House: 558 pp., $26

September 05, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

"I BELIEVE that George Bush's policies are at best misguided and at worst, evil," Curtis Sittenfeld wrote in a piece about Ann Gerhart's 2004 biography of Laura Bush, "The Perfect Wife," for Salon.com. "And yet I love Laura Bush. In fact, there is no public figure I admire more."

What Sittenfeld, like so many American women, loves about Bush is her seemingly effortless ability to be herself. Indeed, so strong is Sittenfeld's attachment that her new novel, "American Wife," she says, is based on the life of her favorite first lady.

"American Wife" reveals how difficult it can be, living this American life with its dreams of power and prosperity, to be true to yourself -- an enduring and fruitful theme in our national literature.

As in Sittenfeld's two other novels, "Prep" and "The Man of My Dreams," the protagonist here, Alice Lindgren, is an outsider who finds herself on a fast track. In all three books, Sittenfeld creates women who must sell pieces of their souls to maintain their "good girl status."

They do their duty as daughters, wives and mothers. It's a duty defined by our moralizing culture, with slight variations neighborhood by neighborhood, mall by mall.

Alice is a nice Lutheran girl. She has modest aspirations, good grades and loving parents. Even Charlie Blackwell, scion of a big, old wealthy Republican family, says she's "ideal wife material."

In some circles, this is the highest praise imaginable.

But being human means being vulnerable. Alice's vulnerability rears its head when she is 17. The year is 1963, which is, of course, when America also fell from grace.

There is young Alice, driving to meet Andrew, the first boy she's really loved. En route, she collides with his car and kills him.

Alice has never suffered fools, but from that point, she hardly suffers anyone, except for Andrew's low-life brother, Pete. She allows Pete to have sex with her (in all the most humiliating ways) as a kind of penance. She gets pregnant and, with the help of her liberal-minded grandmother, Emilie, has an abortion.

The guilt begins. And it never lets up, her whole life long.

In "American Wife," Sittenfeld hits all the hot spots: daughterhood, sex, money, career, marriage, motherhood.

Alice's most beloved role model is her grandmother. Emilie is elegant, independent (though she has never worked), literary and gay. Her lover, Gladys Wycomb, was, we learn, the eighth woman in Wisconsin to receive a medical degree and practice medicine. Coming home early one night from a particularly boorish date, Alice catches Emilie and Gladys in flagrante.

Alice endures it all, the little unmarked rites of passage for the American female: the fear of burning in hell, the lumpish first kiss, the choice between the bad man and the good man, the pressure to engage in humiliating sex, the sad gratefulness for the first lover who actually cares about her pleasure.

It's a wonder we continue to procreate at all.

Yet life goes on. Alice graduates from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in library science. She saves enough money to buy a little house that will be her refuge.

But no -- Alice's mother loses her savings in a pyramid scam perpetrated by none other than Pete, who has dragged his pathetic morals into adulthood. Alice cannot buy her house.

She does, however, meet Charlie Blackwell, a kind of consolation prize (or a knight in shining armor, depending on your point of view) -- a hail-fellow-well-met, son of the governor of Wisconsin, young Republican, running for Congress.

Alice gives up her job. (No!) From here on, it's all about Charlie, which is not that satisfying, since Charlie is a one-dimensional character.

Charlie doesn't win the election, but he gets a good corporate job. He and Alice buy a house; they have a little girl named Ella.

Charlie buys a baseball team. Charlie drinks too much. Charlie finds Jesus. Charlie runs for governor and wins. Charlie, in a transition so fast a reader suspects that Sittenfeld believes it could happen to anyone with his credentials, becomes president of the U.S.

And it's true. Charlie is born with the American male belief that nothing can hurt him. He's a bit afraid of his powerful mother, but little else. He goes for it, he gets it, including Alice.

Alice, on the other hand, watches her life spin out of control until she no longer recognizes herself. Her daughter grows up with questionable values; she gives up everything for Charlie. It's a form of human sacrifice.

Sittenfeld wraps her arms around it. The scope and detail of "American Wife" are reminiscent of Richard Russo. Like Russo, she creates characters from the ground up, ancestry, neighborhood, culture and all.

Certain singing coaches advise clients to sing in their speaking voice for a more natural, organic sound. This is the way Sittenfeld writes -- in her speaking voice. Her characters are carefully rendered and the story is well-constructed, but that's no guarantee that the novel will have a shelf life beyond its political backstory.

And yet, Alice's life has something in it for every American female. Some terrible aha moment, followed by a deep sigh and -- heaven help us -- that utterly feminine "Grapes of Wrath" determination that is the true and unsung backbone of America.

--

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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