American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power.
(First Lady Alice Blackwell appeals to the Americans who criticise her lack of influence over her husband.)
But how could someone like Alice Blackwell/Laura Bush fall in love with, marry and stay married to someone like Charlie Blackwell/George W. Bush? At the age of 30, Alice, a Democrat, an only child from a very ordinary family, bookish, thoughtful and happy in her career as a children’s librarian meets Charlie, the immature, Philistine joker, idling in his wealthy Republican family’s meat business, while plaguing himself with the issue of his ‘legacy’.
It steers clear of being a political polemic but still manages to ask pertinent questions: how exactly did this middle-aged frat-boy end up as President, and how can his liberal-minded wife acquiesce to his policies?
(Holly Kyte Daily Telegraph 12 November 2008)
We read about Alice’s life, before and after this meeting, in absorbing detail: the style is easy and flowing. Curtis Sittenfeld based her novel on various biographies of Laura Bush, adding some new characters but always keeping to the main outlines of her story. For readers, in addition to serious consideration of issues like racism, abortion, education and religion as well as the Iraq war, there is a horrible fascination in the engrossing descriptions of a life which revolves around the country club, Princeton reunions and holidays at a ranch where the Blackwell clan along with their affluent friends can pretend to live a simple life (which still involves black servants, golf, alcohol...). Alice questions these and every aspect of her life with Charlie, explaining her reasons and examining her feelings -of love, attraction, inadequacy, guilt, betrayal and often, simply, of alienation from Charlie and his view of the world.
Other notable examples of real lives disguised as fiction have been Joyce Carol Oates's gripping Blonde (about Marilyn Monroe) and Artemisia, by Anna Banti. So why write a novel, why not write a biography? The answer must be in the freedom the author gains to explore motives and feelings (for example, Sittenfeld makes Alice a Democrat, to heighten the sense that she is the opposite of everything her husband stands for, although Laura Bush is a Republican), or to invent or exaggerate some illuminating episodes while ignoring tedious ones. Biographers who allow themselves the luxury of too much speculation about their subjects (Jane Austen must have felt..... Perhaps Byron wondered.... Wordsworth would have expected) risk irritating the reader.
Sittenfeld's characters are painfully, sensually, infuriatingly alive. Her realist style is fluid and first-person-narrative compelling.
(Mary Flanagan The Independent 25 November 2008)