Books: Curtis Sittenfeld's 'First Lady'

For much of the last seven years, liberals have nurtured a fantasy of a savior arising to deliver the nation from the suffocating grip of right-wing ideology, not through the tedious and mundane processes of the electoral system but the dazzling force of logic and virtue. Someone with the courage to speak the truth of reproductive rights and carbon offsets to the power of Karl Rove; a person with the moral stature to say to the leader of the Free World, Bushie, would you take a look at this Paul Krugman column while I rub the back of your neck? Someone very much like—in fact, identical to—the intelligent, well-meaning and soft-spoken elementary-school librarian married to George W. Bush, who holds the key to national salvation in her well manicured but not-ostentatiously-bejeweled hands. If only she would use it!

It is that fantasy that gives the edge to "American Wife," the novelist Curtis Sittenfeld's imaginative reconstruction of the life of Laura Welch Bush. The work fulfills an ambition Sittenfeld, the author of "Prep" and "The Man of My Dreams," formed sometime after 2004, when she confessed in the online magazine Salon her improbable admiration for the First Lady. Improbable both because Sittenfeld is a Democrat who regarded the Bush administration's policies as "at best misguided and at worst evil," and because the case for Laura Bush rests primarily on her ordinary humanity, rather than any outstanding achievements, or even opinions. The virtues journalists have ascribed to her are personal, unheroic and loom large mostly in contrast to the flaws of her husband: her uncanny serenity, her unfeigned modesty, her discretion and decorum. While watching Laura interact with schoolkids, NEWSWEEK columnist Julia Reed observed, in a Vogue magazine profile, that "hers is not the usual condescending conversation with children that is actually aimed at the adults listening in." Bush seems genuinely to care about children, which is why her critics cannot forgive her for being married to a man whose policies have resulted in the deaths of so many of them in Iraq. Sittenfeld's liberal friends were appalled by her professed affection for George Bush's wife, but when she asked them what Laura could have done differently, their answers—"poison him" or "drive a stake through his heart"—suggested they hadn't thought through the complexities of her situation.

Sittenfeld has done that now, in a book she estimates is only 15 percent based on the actual life of Laura Bush, a woman she has never met. Her heroine, Alice Lindgren, is a clever, pretty, politically liberal schoolteacher from a small town in Wisconsin, who falls for the rakish, wealthy Charlie Blackwell—a country-club layabout whose appeal is never entirely clear to the reader, apart from his magnificent, meticulously described penis. Sittenfeld, who admits to NEWSWEEK that "there's nothing I know about the Bushes that the average person couldn't find in a published book," doesn't strain too hard for authenticity. Only about five of the scores of characters weaving in and out of her story are based on actual people: Alice and Charlie, of course; a cynical, baby-faced consultant who becomes Charlie's closest adviser (guess who?), and Charlie's parents, the benign but remote Harold Blackwell, heir to a meatpacking fortune and a defeated presidential candidate, and the imperious Priscilla, known in the family as "Maj," short for "Her Majesty." (Nicknames are always a minefield in romans à clef.Knowing almost nothing about Laura Bush except that her pet name for George is "Bushie," I was impressed by Sittenfeld's passing up the easy gimmick of having Alice call her husband "Blackie.") "American Wife" does, though, make good use of the one known episode from Laura's early life that set her apart from the other good middle-class girls of Midland, Texas, in the early 1960s: an auto accident, in which she was at fault, that killed a high-school football star who may or may not have been a beau. A version of this tragedy is the key to Alice's character, and its aftermath resonates through the decades and haunts the halls of the Blackwell White House.

And it's Alice's character that captivated Sittenfeld, like others who have had the same thought about the wife of the president: couldn't she have done better than him? Sittenfeld, while rejecting the charge that "American Wife" presents a liberal's fantasy of Laura Bush, acknowledges that some of her Democratic friends resent it for the opposite reason: "They told me they liked the character of Charlie Blackwell, and they don't want to. They think he's endearing and funny." (Maybe so, but how hard can it be to resist a character who refers to a breast-cancer panel as "a titty summit"?) The novelist claims her aim was simple: "It's an opportunity to explore human behavior. Laura Bush is very visible, but also very mysterious. What is life like for someone like her?'

Sittenfeld doesn't pretend to know. She imagines Alice's exasperation with people who "subscribe to the belief … that [Charlie's] a moron, an evil moron, and to a certain extent, that lets him off the hook. But I—I should know better." That has the ring of truth about it, as does Alice's endless, and endlessly amusing, struggles to reconcile her middle-class values with the ridiculously overprivileged life she stumbled into. But it's a truth about Alice Blackwell, not Laura Bush. "To others, I am a symbol," Alice muses at one point; "to myself, I have only ever been me." If you think about it, Madonna could say the same thing. Only a novelist can really know another person's most intimate secrets, because the writer gets to make them up.

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