Ironically enough, my first encounter with Curtis Sittenfeld’s fiction was the short story “Gender Studies” in the New Yorker—knowing nothing but her name, I initially assumed she was a man. After reading the story, told from the close third-person point of view of a liberal woman who has a one-night stand with her Trump-supporting airport-shuttle driver, a man having captured a female perspective with such accurate nuance boggled my mind. I could not believe a man had written it. I turned out to be right. (Her full name apparently being Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld, one wonders if using her male-sounding middle name was to overcome publishers’ implicit biases against women.)
In her third novel, American Wife (2008), Sittenfeld boldly tackles the first-person perspective of a First Lady based on the figure of Laura Bush. Sittenfeld’s First Lady is named Alice Lindgren, and only the final of the book’s four parts takes place after she’s become First Lady.
Part I: 1272 Amity Lane:
The first part of the novel describes Alice Lindgren’s childhood, growing up middle-class in the small town of Riley, Wisconsin. She’s very close with her father’s mother, who lives with them. Her grandmother goes to visit her close friend, Dr. Gladys Wycomb, in Chicago, twice a year. When Alice is a teenager, her grandmother takes her on one of these trips with her to see the city, and one night when Gladys and her grandmother set her up on a date with someone, she ends up getting sick and coming home early, catching her grandmother and Dr. Wycomb kissing, though they don’t know she saw them.
Back at school, she has a crush on Andrew Imhof, whom her best friend Dena dated for four years (but whom Dena pretty much originally stole from Alice in the first place). They get in a fight about it, causing Alice to drive by herself instead of with Dena to a party where she’s meeting Andrew, when she ends up getting in a collision with Andrew himself, killing him. In her grief, she goes to the Imhofs’ farm to apologize, and only Andrew’s brother Pete is there, whom she ends up sleeping with several times until he eventually coerces her to give him a blow job, then calls her a “whore” for doing so. She ends up pregnant, and her grandmother, without telling her parents, arranges for Dr. Wycomb to give her an abortion.
Part II: 3859 Sproule Street:
The second section jumps ahead to when Alice is 31, working as a librarian at an elementary school in Madison. She’s still friends with Dena, who, one summer when Alice is making papier-mâché characters of children’s book characters to decorate the school library with, forces her to come to a party where Charlie Blackwell will be. Charlie is the son of the former governor of Wisconsin, loaded from the family business (Blackwell Meats), and gearing up for his own run for Congress. Charlie’s uninterested in Dena and is instead taken with Alice, whom he first meets at the party when he comes upon her reading a children’s book to someone’s kid. She turns down his request for a date, but he follows her home, ends up coming in, and loves her papier-mâché characters, which no one else has seen, and they end up talking, connecting, and making out. Because of Dena, Alice is still reluctant to date him, but he invites her to a speech he’s making, where she meets Hank, the force channeling Charlie’s charisma into a viable political career. Then they do start dating. When Alice tells Dena, Dena’s so angry she won’t be her friend anymore, thinking the situation is a repeat of when Alice liked Andrew after he broke up with her.
The day before she met Charlie, Alice bought a house, but then she finds out her mother lost twenty grand when she invested it with none other than Pete Imhof, who simply claims the deal went bad when Alice confronts him. Her mother gives her a family brooch to sell to recoup some of the money, but when it’s appraised at a mere $90, Alice backs out of buying her house and gives her mother the money for the down payment (seven grand), claiming that’s how much she got for the brooch.
After she and Charlie have been dating six weeks, there’s a bad storm that Charlie drives to her apartment in, and they decide they should get married. She goes with him to meet his family at the fancy Halcyon compound, an enormous but strangely shabby place where the massive difference between their upbringings finally hits home. Late in the trip it emerges that they’re engaged, to which Priscilla Blackwell responds “‘What a clever girl you are.’” They get married with a small ceremony. Her grandmother is happy to hear Priscilla Blackwell might not approve of her. After Charlie loses his Congressional race, they move to a house outside Milwaukee.
Part III: 402 Maronee Drive:
One night when their daughter Ella is nine, Charlie doesn’t come home from work at Blackwell Meats when they’re supposed to go to a play, and when Alice goes to his parents’ house to look for him she ends up inviting their servant Miss Ruby to go with her. Charlie’s been discontent lately, having disagreements with his brothers at work, tense about his upcoming 20th reunion at Princeton. When she gets home from the play, Charlie is home, upset about some tainted meat their company might be responsible for; he wants to quit. He’s always talking about his legacy, which Alice hates. She meets up with her sister-in-law Jadey, who talks about wanting to have an affair. Then her grandmother goes into a coma; when she wakes up, Alice confides that she’s worried about Charlie’s drinking and his mid-life crisis. At a Blackwell dinner, Priscilla reprimands her for taking Miss Ruby out to the play. Her grandmother dies; at the funeral Dena’s mother tells her Dena is dating Pete Imhof. Charlie comes home one night and announces he’s gone in with an investment group who’s buying the Brewers. Alice has Miss Ruby and her family over for lunch, which Charlie interrupts, drunk. At the end-of-the-school year party at their house, a daughter of some friends finds Charlie’s porn magazines. The Brewers deal is finalized that night, and when Alice says she doesn’t want to go out to celebrate because they need to pack for the Princeton reunion the next day, he takes their babysitter out drinking and he and Alice have a big fight before leaving. At Princeton, Charlie drinks a lot and, after Alice finds out he’s done cocaine, she kisses their friend Joe Thayer, but stops when it’s not as pleasurable as she imagined. Back at home, she tells Charlie she wants a trial separation and takes Ella with her to her mother’s in Riley for a few weeks. While there, she has a phone conversation with Priscilla in which she learns everyone thinks Charlie is incompetent, and that Priscilla always wondered why she married Charlie, not the other way around, as Alice had always assumed. A mysterious lady Alice suspects is Dena gives Ella a plastic tiara. Ella and Alice are about to meet Charlie for a picnic when his brother calls and says Charlie got a DUI.
Alice doesn’t talk to Charlie for awhile, and then Jadey tells her he’s befriended a minister. When he does call, he says he’s paid for Jessica Sutton, Miss Ruby’s daughter, to go to Ella’s fancy school, and he’s started running. Alice talks to Ella about Andrew Imhof’s death. When Alice learns that Charlie’s been having Miss Ruby stay with him at his parents’ Milwaukee house, she finally caves and goes home, visiting Charlie at his office at the baseball stadium, where he shocks her by revealing he’s been born again and stopped drinking. Things go well for the next few years, and then Charlie successfully runs for governor, and then president, based largely on his religious appeal. Alice isn’t crazy about the religious stuff, but realizes he couldn’t have quit drinking without it (and some people believe she’s responsible for his being President due to causing him to quit drinking via leaving him). Jessica Sutton will become Alice’s chief of staff.
Part IV: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:
One morning when Charlie and Alice first wake up and read the newspapers per their usual routine, they discuss Edgar Franklin, a protester of the Iraq War who’s gotten a lot of press since his son died in combat; he’s demanding to talk to the President, but so far Charlie has refused. Alice has refrained from interfering in Charlie’s administration not out of a belief that she should so much as being uncertain what the best course of action actually is, and she believes his reasons for invading Iraq are more complex than people make them seem. She was relieved when it looked like he was going to lose the presidential election, but now it’s four years after the invasion, nineteen months from the end of his administration. As she’s off for her day of First-Lady errands, Hank tells her that someone is claiming she had an abortion in October of ‘63; Alice thinks at first it must be Dena, but it turns out to be Gladys Wycomb, who’s 104. She wants Alice to convince Charlie not to go through with a pro-life Supreme Court nominee. Alice, who has publicly admitted to being pro-choice twice, without any elaboration, goes and talks to Gladys, trying to explain she doesn’t have that kind of influence. But Gladys will have none of it, and tells Alice off to her face, more than anyone ever has, for simply standing by.
Now that 31-year-old Jessica is Alice’s closest friend, Alice stops to see Dena, who lives with Pete Imhof; both are friendly (it was Dena who gave Ella the tiara) and, despite having had opportunities, neither have any inclination to talk to the media about her, which surprises Alice (many acquaintances have talked about her publicly, but the press has still not gotten much personal material on her). She can’t believe it’s possible that she really hasn’t done enough to stop all the carnage in the war, and wishes she didn’t have the pressure of the potential opportunity to do more; many people have written about her not having done enough to influence her husband. On the way home, she gets a call from Hank that Gladys Wycomb died, neutralizing the threat that her abortion will be revealed. Alice remembers how Charlie ended up picking the vice presidential candidate she was leaning toward over Hank’s pick and worries she’s at fault for the potential carnage caused by the VP’s influence, that Charlie won’t back out of the war because of how influential the VP has been, and that he’s foolish for not doing so.
Alice then declares she wants to talk to Edgar Franklin. He gets in her limo with her and eventually she agrees with him outright, saying she thinks it’s time to end the war and bring the troops home. We get a flashback to the night of the 2000 presidential election that ended up in the air, with Charlie believing he lost and admitting to her he was relieved to not have to do the work (he also wants to not finish the gubernatorial term he’d have to go back to). When she talks to Charlie on the phone, he is very angry about how she contradicted his position publicly with Edgar Franklin. They have to sit through a gala in her honor together that Ella, a Princeton graduate and Manhattan investment banker, comes for; Ella steadfastly agrees with her father’s position about the necessity of continuing the war. Afterward, Alice eats with Ella and debates whether it’s right to tell Ella about the abortion (Ella’s Christian like her father), and decides it would only make her imagine possible siblings, so she doesn’t.
After reading for awhile, Alice remembers that Pete Imhof gave her an envelope and sees it’s the apology note she went to the Imhof farm to give them, along with the pendant she’d left with it because Andrew had liked it. She finally talks to Charlie, who thinks she’s made him a laughingstock, and they end up having a more honest talk than they have since he’s been President about its difficulties, like the divergence in their beliefs. She says she’s only now figured out what she’s done wrong as First Lady. He insists, though not angrily anymore, that she’s not responsible for the casualties in the war. She knows she could have done more but that she’s married a man who would not “even be aware of [her] failings,” and that Charlie will forgive her if she doesn’t make a habit of acting that way.
That night, she dreams of Andrew Imhof, but instead of the one she always has where they are separated in a crowded room, this time they find each other, and she knows she could have had a life with him. She loves Charlie, but didn’t actually vote for him for President, and sometimes she thinks that she only married him—she’s not the one who gave him power. She’ll keep her vote against him a secret for now. The End.
The four parts and their dramatic threads can be broken down more succinctly thus:
Part I: Alice’s childhood and adolescence: her grandmother’s relationship with Gladys Wycomb, Andrew Imhof’s death, and Alice’s abortion.
Part II: Alice’s meeting and courtship with Charlie and break with childhood best friend Dena.
Part III: Alice temporarily leaves Charlie, causing him to quit drinking and, indirectly, to undertake his ambitious political rise.
Part IV: A day in Charlie’s presidency: Gladys Wycomb threatens to out Alice’s abortion but then dies, Alice reconnects with Dena, and she breaks her promise to Charlie by publicly contradicting his beliefs.
In a narrative that skips large chunks of time, Sittenfeld imbues tension in the overall arc by compressing the final section—the actual First Lady section—into a single day. The three preceding sections are spread out over longer periods of time. All four sections have, as they should, discrete narrative arcs, and by having the events covered in the first section (her abortion and everything that leads up to it) come directly into play in the final section, the discrete arcs become interlocking. (Before coming into play directly, the events of the first section come indirectly into play in the second section when Alice confesses them to Charlie to cross their final frontier of intimacy, and in the third when Charlie’s throwing them in her face shows how unbearable his discontent has made him to live with.) The first part’s events also come back in the fourth when Alice compares the tragedy of Andrew Imhof’s death, a death she caused, to the tragedy of the lives lost in the war, calling into question her culpability in the latter:
And yet if Andrew Imhof’s death was the singular tragedy of my life, if in some ways I have lived since then trying to compensate for my error, trying to be worthy of having survived—if his death was the worst thing I could have imagined, then what words are there, what space in my imagination, for the deaths of thousands of American troops and foreign civilians? If my critics are right that I share responsibility for Charlie’s administrative policies, including the decision to go to war, then Andrew Imhof’s death is the least of what I have caused; it is nothing, and utterly insignificant. What if I believed the consequences of the war were also my fault?
If the blood of these people were on my hands, if there were something I personally could have done to prevent such carnage, the loss of so many adults and teenagers and children who presumably wanted, just as I always have, to live an ordinary life—if I believed I could have made a difference but instead remained silent, then how could I bear it?
A big part of the conflict in the final section derives from Alice’s internal debate of how responsible she is for these lives. That she’s asking these questions at all makes her sympathetic; her conclusion might be more questionable. In the passage above, Alice seems to do something along the lines of acknowledging that she can’t face acknowledging her responsibility for these deaths, which would mean implicit acknowledgment that she is, in fact, responsible for them. But that Sittenfeld aptly captures intricate psychological maneuvers at work doesn’t mean she’s written a delusional, unlikable character here; quite the opposite. We won’t read Alice as unreliable because of how closely she’s examined the painful details of her past—if she was going to gloss over things, she’d need a lot more gloss. The primary evidence of this lack of gloss for me is the description of her sexual interlude with Pete Imhof. (Sittenfeld writes with a balder honesty about sex from the female perspective than pretty much any writer I’ve encountered; she’s like the antidote to Updike.) And so I sympathized with Alice’s inability to acknowledge the weight of what she’d done—or rather, hadn’t done—rather than meeting it with liberal scorn.
In terms of pacing, the first section covers the longest span of time (all of childhood and adolescence), while the second two seem to cover comparable spans of periods of several weeks (her courtship with Charlie and the period she leaves him, respectively) and then the final one shrinks to a single day. In Part I, we learn first that Alice’s grandmother has a secret relationship with Gladys Wycomb. Then, after Andrew’s death, she ends up with her own secret: the abortion. That Gladys Wycomb is the one to perform this abortion is the perfect intertwining of her and the grandmother’s secrets, and that intertwining the perfect resolution for first arc. In Part II, the courtship, the conflict is Alice reckoning with the divergence in her and Charlie’s upbringings, offering the final point of contrast before her life weaves away from ordinary. In Part III, we open in a scene on a day Charlie’s discontent with his job hits the fan, the same day, it so happens, that Alice makes a gesture toward Miss Ruby of the servant Sutton family that leads to her increasing influence over Jessica Sutton’s fate. We end with Charlie’s decision to stop drinking, the family reunited. In Part IV, the day we get, we get from beginning to end: from Alice’s waking up and reading the news with Charlie (discussing precisely the story she’ll end up interfering with later in the day) to the climactic fight she has with him at day’s end; the day is bookended with them physically together, and progresses through a series of more and less confrontational meetings: with Gladys Wycomb, with Dena and Pete, with Edgar Franklin, with Ella, and finally with Charlie himself as she confronts the burden of the role she’s been thrust into.
Through the figure of Dena, Sittenfeld shows in a concrete way what Alice has lost by being with Charlie and entering his upper-class world: a connection to her more ordinary roots. In the final section, Alice’s reconnecting with Dena would then seem to indicate that she’s retaken something of her former self, thus providing a concrete impetus for her to realize, on this day of all days, that she could be acting differently as First Lady.
Aside from varying the time spans in the different parts, another way Sittenfeld imbues tension in such a long-ranging narrative is using the retrospective perspective to mention future events that pique the reader’s interest, and by contrasting the quaintness of past times with what we know is to come, like when she observes the meager crowds at the events for Charlie’s early Congressional run. By the fourth part, this perspective allows her to give us flashbacks of scenes that didn’t happen on the one day the part’s occurring.
Sittenfeld has used a lot of historical detail here, but at the same time she’s changed some basics: the Blackwells being from Wisconsin instead of Texas, into meats instead of oil, alums of Princeton instead of Yale. Another instance is the car wreck that kills Andrew Imhof—Laura Bush really did get in a car accident when she was seventeen that killed one of her classmates, though she was not alone in the car as Alice is in the novel. But there has been speculation about whether the classmate Laura Bush killed was her boyfriend or just a “close friend,” and Sittenfeld takes maximum dramatic advantage of this possibility with a powerful throughline and ending: the alternate life Alice might have had with Andrew. In real life, Laura Bush may or may not have become First Lady if she hadn’t gotten in that fatal accident; in Sittenfeld’s narrative it seems highly likely, especially with the conclusion, that Alice would have married Andrew if he hadn’t died, and led a happy ordinary life. We’re left to wonder about a chain of impacts and consequences that no doubt does have its parallel manifestation in the real world: if Alice marries Andrew and doesn’t marry Charlie, perhaps then Charlie is never driven to quit drinking and become President, and the Iraq War doesn’t happen, and then god knows where we’d be today…
Sittenfeld’s treatment of Alice is like a reading-between-the-lines of fawning biographies and news stories; Laura Bush is quoted as saying the accident when she was 17 caused her to lose her faith “for many, many years”; in Sittenfeld’s story, she’s never regained her faith, but the populace assumes she shares her husband’s. Her beliefs diverge from her husband’s much more significantly than her husband’s campaign team will ever allow to be revealed. Sittenfeld’s taken a pile of material with a dearth of substance and revealed a story behind that lack of substance that, though it can never be verified, seems entirely plausible.
A couple of glaring adjustments to the historical record here are that Charlie’s father himself was never President, and that Alice and Charlie only have one daughter. The conflict with this daughter in the novel is not that she’s a rebellious seeker of pleasure, as per the reputation of the Bush twins, but rather that Alice ends up producing a carbon copy of Charlie from whom privilege has eradicated any capacity for empathy. Fortunately, Alice has established for herself a liberal surrogate daughter in Jessica Sutton, as Ella calls her out for toward the novel’s end:
“No, I’m totally not threatened by this woman who’s close to my own age, who you spend all your time with and like better than me. Not one little bit!”
In this regard it seems like Alice almost gets to have her cake and eat it too; her relationship with Ella seems warm despite Alice’s reliance on Jessica and the divergence in their beliefs. This feels similar to her conclusion about whether she’s done enough as First Lady, how culpable she is for the war casualties.
It seems possible that the change from meat to oil for the Bush-based clan could have been inspired by a famous Texas Ranger, Nolan Ryan, of the baseball team that George W. actually owned, now running Nolan Ryan’s Beef. And while she didn’t make the George H.W. stand-in a President, she does seem to capture a realistic characteristic of his in his “sentimental streak,” though Alice’s attitude toward it is one of the ways her perspective seems conveniently myopic:
…there was nothing else in the world as endearing to me as Harold Blackwell’s sentimental streak. It was enough to make me wonder if there were other elected officials I was as wrong about as I’d been about him. Were there men (and it would be primarily men) who, instead of creating personas that were fakely righteous and honorable, were the opposite: fakely cruel, fakely callous? Men who, through the distortion of the media or a perceived pressure to act a certain way, sublimated, at least in public, their own decency and kindness?
The juvenile competitive spirit Sittenfeld captures among the Blackwell brothers also rings entirely true and provides some critical insight into the general nature of politicians, driven to prestigious roles out of a petty desire to prove themselves and be perceived as better than others rather than to actually help others. The Blackwell brothers try to one-up one another about stupid, irrelevant things; this is the nature of the stubbornness and determination that takes them so far. The Halcyon compound that is their pride and joy also has an interesting detail: it only has one toilet, which doesn’t work very well, to accommodate eighteen people, a fact the Blackwells take perverse pride in. This seems potentially symbolic of an old world order crumbling, falling apart; despite George H.W. referring to the “new world order” ushered in during his presidency, political nepotism is hardly new, and hardly eradicated.
The current presidential era would seem to indicate that now more than ever we need the female perspective in politics. Ultimately Alice’s judgment of her husband, though tempered, seems to be that he wasn’t worthy of the job in the first place, and that he’s done significant damage in the role. There’s something somewhat disheartening about her apparent conclusion that she should have done more, but that really, she can’t. But she has at least borne witness to his foolishness, especially when she compares his insistence on continuing the war to the time she tried to use the restroom in an unfamiliar country club, walked past it, but didn’t turn around when she realized her mistake for fear of revealing to others that she was ignorant and didn’t belong there.
Alice, it seems, becomes the symbol for all American wives, not just ones married to Presidents—positioned to form the most accurate perspective on their husbands, sometimes able to influence them, perhaps, more often, not. Her realization at the end that she has sacrificed her ideals and loved someone else all along might symbolize that ultimately all wives wind up in a position they don’t really want to be in—subservient, identities subsumed. In her review of the novel for the New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates begins by asking “Is there a distinctly American experience?” and concludes that the novel shows how “[t]he ideal American wife can only retreat into a kind of female solace of opacity.”