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on 11 July 2009
As someone with no great interest in American politics I was a little dubious when this book was recommended to me. What a pleasant surprise. I found it utterly compelling and difficult to put down. The politics are the backdrop to what is, in effect, a moving account of an ordinary woman's life, her struggles with issues large and small and the great joy she finds in those aspects of her life that most women will identify with - her family and friends. I don't want to give away the plot, but suffice it to say that it covers family, friendships, love, death, addiction, relationships, career, children, religion, politics and the struggle to find a way to stay true to yourself. I have no idea how factual the book is but to me that doesn't matter. As a story of an ordinary woman it is beautifully written and utterly believable. Highly recommended.
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on 6 August 2009
This is a brilliant novel, spolied as so many reviewers here point out by a lame ending. I first came across Curtis Sittenfeld as the author of 'Prep', a clever, insightful, clearly autobiographical account of a girl's education (her name is Lee) at an American prep school. 'Man of My Dreams', the short novel which followed, is a bit of a disappointment, not because it isn't good, but because it offers very little in the way of an advance on 'Prep' -- basically it is Lee Goes to College. 'American Wife' is Sittenfeld's breakthrough novel, and this is very much the step forward I was hoping for. The autobiographical note has been left behind -- the narrator of 'American Wife' (forget Laura Bush, if you can) is a person in her own right, with experiences and observations that always ring true. Even the passages describing her sex life with Charlie seem right and justifiable, despite the image of 'W' which for some readers will be forever lurking in the undergrowth. The last part of the book, however, is clearly a mistake. Describing life at the White House carries Sittenfeld only too predictably into the territory mapped out by tv shows like 'The West Wing'. It can't be done -- not well, at any rate -- and wasn't in fact necessary. Everything she wanted to say about politics and family and compromise and idealism and money and privilege in American life was there already. It is as if Jane Austen had attempted to write a sequel to P & P in which Darcy became prime minister. You'd read it, but you'd wish she hadn't done it. Read 'American Wife' for the first three-quarters, and forgive the rest. All criticisms aside, I am eagerly awaiting her next book.
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on 27 July 2009
A very well written enjoyable book all the more interesting as it is loosely based on the life of now ex-First Lady Laura Bush. I really loved and whizzed through the first 3 parts of this book, but in the final part set in the White House the characters did seem to get a little lost amongst the larger events and Alice's justifications for setting aside her own beliefs to support her husbands presidency.
On a personal note I did struggle with some of the more romantic/sexual scenes, I'm no prude by any stretch of the imagination but the image of George Bush bounding around naked in bed was sometimes a bit too much for me :)
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 6 January 2009
American Wife is a novel "inspired" by the life of Laura Bush. The idea that you could be reading her thoughts is enticing. Throughout her time in the White House, Ms Bush has given very little away about her personal beliefs or background, and Sittenfeld uses that blank canvas as the inspiration for Alice's character and story. The book succeeds because the narrative is so honest and compelling. Alice's character feels incredibly real - as do all of the characters.

However the plot follows the known facts about Bush's life and her husband's presidency so closely that it becomes distracting. I didn't need so many elements to be identical to actual events: the terrorist attacks in September 2001, the details of the election, the description of the Clintons. It felt like Sittenfeld couldn't quite decide if she was writing a novel or a fictionalized version of actual events. It's a fine line, because ultimately the book succeeds because you like to imagine it's true - or could be true.

The book is narrated by Alice Blackwell. She is the wife of Charlie Blackwell, who was narrowly elected President in 2000. It's written in four sections: the first when she is at school, the second in her early 30s, the third several years later and finally in the White House with her husband now President. One of the most unsatisfactory aspects of the novel for me was the fact that the third section ends when Charlie has just avowed to give up drinking and still has no intentions to enter politics. (This is well after the 400 page mark). Charlie's conversion from alcoholic to born-again Christian and politician are never really explained, which is to the book's detriment.

So it's not really a book about Alice as First Lady and if that's what you are after you'll probably be disappointed. Where it succeeds better is as a portrait of a marriage and the compromises that you make to stay together and build a marriage that works. Charlie and Alice are very different. Throughout the marriage, Alice find her own way to quietly stake her own territory - quietly giving donations to charities that her husband might not support or arranging to pay for the granddaughter of the family housekeeper to attend private school. In an article about Laura Bush, Sittenfeld has previously described this as Laura's "stealth activism".

When Charlie becomes President, Alice starts to question whether it's enough to hold her own beliefs or whether she has the moral obligation to try to influence events (and whether she can, even if she wants to). Should she speak out about her husband's choice of Supreme Court nominee? How much is she responsible for the war in the Middle East and should she campaign for the withdrawal of troops? Must she always support her husband?

It's a long novel and I didn't think it needed to be as long as it was. I was completely hooked at the beginning but the third section in particular was just too long for me. It's well crafted - threads are planted and then you realise their significance much later - but there are needless screeds of detail. There are also a lot of graphic sex scenes, which feel out of place given the novel is being narrated by such a private character. I tossed up between rating this 3 or 4 stars, but the fact that it has stayed on my mind has swayed me.
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on 23 October 2008
I confess I'm a bit of a geek about American politics, and I've always been strangely fascinated by the presidency of George W. Bush. However, it has to be said that I know next to nothing about the life of Laura Bush, and although this is obviously a fictional account it is an absolutely fascinating attempt to imagine some of the trials and pressures that she must have gone through.

This riveting book follows Alice's progress as her worries escalate from the common everyday problems of love and family, to the grand scale of questioning if she may somehow be culpable in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. The way it manages to turn the near baffling question of "how could anyone be married to that man?" around to make us all question the society that gave him power in the first place is masterful.

I also think that through the character of Charlie Blackwell, Sittenfeld really helps us get to the heart of what George W Bush is really about. She understands that whilst in many ways he is a monstrous man, the key to his success is the fact that he is in many ways so personable and charming, and that despite what we may think of his politics that he honestly believes he is doing the right thing. It would have been so easy for this book to resort to cheap caricature or mindless Bush-bashing, and the fact that it is in many ways so restrained is what makes it such a great novel.

There have been so many books written on the Bush administration, and there are doubtless dozens more to come after he leaves office. But for me this is a near perfect first book to reflect back on this insane period of history we have all been living through, and truly one of the books of the year.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 22 September 2009
Other reviewers have already discussed the plot of this book so I won't repeat that. I didn't know much about the book before I started reading it, and certainly didn't see it as a thinly-fictionalised portrait of Laura Bush. Sittenfeld herself describes it as `inspired by' Laura Bush but also acknowledges books on Hillary Clinton as sources. And at heart this just isn't a political book, or a book about American politics, although the question of what happens when two people in a marriage have very different political, social and cultural ideas and ideals is one which is explored here.

At heart I think this is a fine book about the intimacies, tensions and frustrations that need to be negotiated in any marriage or close relationship. The text is excellent on the textured minutiae that make up joint lives, and manages to be detailed and confidential without ever becoming `girly'. The charismatic Charlie, especially, is portrayed brilliantly: charming and yet crude, warm and yet uncouth, brutal and yet also vulnerable, and I felt that he and Alice really love each other: not in a romantic, sugary, rose-tinted way but as adults, complete with compromises, disillusionment and disappointments.

I have to agree with other reviewers that the last section set in the White House is a huge disappointment and shifts the register of the rest of the book. The sudden jump from 1988 to 2007 is disconcerting, as is the shift from past tense to present tense. Also so many plot strands are resolved off-stage as it were: the growth and development of Ella, Charlie's shift into politics etc.
So not a completely satisfying book because of the ill-judged final quarter, but still an excellent read for the first 400 or so pages.
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The character of Alice Blackwell is very closely based on Laura Bush - in fact the author says at the beginning of the book "American Wife is a work of fiction inspired by the life of an American first lady. Her husband, his parents and certain prominent members of his administration are recognisable". I knew very little about Laura Bush before I read the book, other than snippets such as she used to be a librarian and she was involved in a tragic accident as a teenager. This event is recalled early in the book and we see how it shapes Alice's life and leads her to make some disasterous decisions which come back to haunt her 40 years later when she's occupying the East Wing of the White House.

The President, Charlie Blackwell, doesn't come across as quite as much of a buffoon as Dubya, but he's still not a very likeable character. It's interesting to watch as Charlie's various political campaigns - for Congressman, Governor and ultimately President - are engineered by his powerful family and political allies, when all he really wants to do is own a baseball team.

The book is in four parts and the final section brings us up to 2007 and deals with America's involvement in the War on Terror and the reactions of various people who feel that Alice should be doing something to influence her husband's policies. It's a long book but very readable, compelling and fascinating - you don't have to be interested in politics as this could almost be the story of any marriage and the character of Alice is very real and sympathetic. I could really feel her awkwardness and embarrassment when Alice, a shy, bookish only child from a loving but undemonstrative family, is first introduced to the rich, powerful Blackwell family, quickly becoming the butt of their childish humour and in-jokes, and a target for their scheming matriarch Priscilla (if this character is closely based on Barbara Bush, then my heart really goes out to Laura).

My only slight niggle is that I wasn't totally convinced about the relationship between the two main characters - yes Charlie could be funny and charming, but would such an intelligent, liberal (Democrat-leaning) woman as Alice really be so much in love with an uncouth, self-indulgent playboy? But then I suppose that's a question a lot of people ask about Laura and George ...
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on 9 March 2009
This is the first Sittenfeld book I've read and I found it amazing. It is loosely based on Laura Bush and covers all the important moments of her life including the notorious car crash at the age of 17 and her reaction to her husband's alcohol addiction and subsequent rehabilitation. It also covers her reaction to her husband's foreign policy in the wake of terrorist attacks.
Sittenfeld's writing is excellent, chatty and the characterisations are spot on. I finished this book in a day as I couldn't stop reading it and felt disappointed when I finished reading it, it was that good. I couldn't recommend it enough.
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on 26 April 2009
American Wife
Having read several reviews of this book and watched it soar on the New York Times Bestsellers I decided to buy it. I don't often spend this much on fiction, but it was worth every penny! I simply couldn't put it down. I knew it was based on Laura Bush and the book definitely does mirror many factual details. The author changes the background for Laura and George Bush from Texas to Wisconsin with his money coming not from oil, but from the meat processing business. It's a great read and I highly recommend.
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on 30 December 2008
I haven't written a review on Amazon before but bought this book after seeing it in a store and the minute I started reading, everything else stopped! I couldn't put it down, it was completely engrossing. Written with such clarity that I kept thinking "just a few more pages" to the point that I read it in 3 days and recommend it highly. I have already ordered more copies for friends!
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