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September 4, 2008

American Wife

Posted by carol
Curtis Sittenfeld's new novel, American Wife, which features a character inspired by First Lady Laura Bush, was just published this week. We asked contributor Avideh Bashirrad to weigh in about the book and the feedback it's generating, as well as to share some thoughts on why it would be a good book club selection. Could this discussion be spirited? Undoubtedly so. However, in a poll conducted earlier this year nearly 90% of respondents told us they felt that their groups either talk about --- or would be willing to talk about --- books with controversial topics in them.

Had I known that Laura Bush was the inspiration behind Curtis Sittenfeld's new novel, American Wife, I may not have picked it up. Oh, what a big mistake that would have been. Luckily this book is published by Random House so it was my job to read it (full disclosure).

It's not that I disliked Laura Bush, I just never found her particularly intriguing because, to me, she's been an almost invisible presence during the tumultuous years of her husband's presidency. I realize now that I judged her for that silence, quite unfairly. I never imagined that behind her seemingly vacant disposition there could be a complex and enigmatic person --- someone whose personal ambitions might conflict with the public life she's been tasked with.

Thank goodness then, for authors like Curtis Sittenfeld who dare to imagine. For me, Sittenfeld's portrait of Alice Blackwell, the fictional character who closely resembles our First Lady, has given depth and nuance to the real Laura Bush. What we have here is a case of truth inspiring fiction, which then inspires and informs the truth.

A lot has been said about American Wife since Maureen Dowd's op-ed ran in the New York Times and Radar published those provocative scenes from the book (which taken out of context gave the false impression this might belong in the steamy romance genre). Much of the chatter online was colored with controversy, which real or manufactured, tends to polarize people. Some praised the book and others vowed never to read it. Politics were clearly in play here. But if Sittenfeld had an agenda at all, I believe it was simply to challenge what we think we know about people in the public eye. In Alice Blackwell she has created a three-dimensional character --- someone who is completely convincing and easy to like because, like us, she's not perfect.

At its core this is a beautifully written coming of age story about a young girl who becomes the First Lady, and struggles to reconcile the divergence between her private and public life. It's a story with heart, and I think book clubs will find much to talk about in these pages --- tragedy, love, friendship, and betrayal are just some of themes you'll encounter.

Now that the novel is finally on sale, I hope people will pick it up and decide for themselves what to think. In this age of information overload, we could maybe use some silence (something the first lady is familiar with) to reclaim the joyful act of reading a good book (something else the first lady can relate to).

---Avideh Bashirrad