It's nearly impossible to separate your feelings about "American Wife" and the character of Alice Blackwell from your feelings about the book's inspiration, Laura Bush. Although the book is probably at least 80% fiction, the parallels are impossible to ignore, and they naturally color every aspect of the reading experience. Every reader is going to bring in preconceptions - admiration, frustration, anger, pity, or just plain confusion - and expect this book to either confirm or explain what they think they know about our current first lady.
But while recognizing my own bias, I tried - I really tried - to be as objective as possible. In some places - particularly the first two parts of the book - it was easier than others. At other times, keeping an open mind became an almost exhaustive task. Nevertheless, it's one I'm glad to have undertaken. "American Wife" succeeds on both levels: as a standalone book about one woman's rather interesting life, and as a speculative character study about a women most of us will probably never truly understand.
Alice Blackwell is a study in contradictions. She's an intelligent women who goes out of her way to make sure she never has to think for herself. She's almost aggressively passive, a woman who seems to want to make as little impression on the world as possible, and yet one of her first acts as an independent adult is to take another human being's life in a car accident. She's a Democrat who marries into a staunchly political Republican family. You like her, but at the same time you veer between pitying her and wanting to smack her back to her senses. As such, she makes for a fascinating, but ultimately frustrating, main character.
The other main stand-in in "American Wife," of course, is Charlie Blackwell, the incompetent younger son who stumbles his way into Alice's heart and eventually the White House. Personally, I don't think Sittenfeld went far enough in drawing the parallels between Charlie and W., but maybe that's just me. We gain little insight into their relationship, and we never really know what they see in each other (except perhaps desperation on Alice's part - unmarried into her 30s, you can't escape the idea that she honestly feels she can't do any better). Their daughter Ella is likewise obtuse - after a jump from Ella at age 8 to age 28, we might as well be looking at a complete stranger in the final quarter of the book.
The characters who do stand out are the bit players in Alice's life, those who never became public figures and are thus wholly new to us. Chief among these is her grandmother Emilie. I would have happily read an entire book about this woman's life - calling a feisty older woman a "firecracker" may be a cliché, but here it's entirely appropriate. She's a scream, and the book brightened immensely whenever she made an appearance. Alice's childhood friend Dena undergoes several metamorphoses over the course of the book, finally redeeming herself in the final chapters in a quietly satisfying way.
I truly enjoyed "American Wife" as a novel. As a character study, it probably raised more questions than it answered; moreover, I worry that readers will become too obsessed with drawing parallels and wondering where the line between fact and fiction has been drawn. Sittenfeld has done a marvelous job creating a complex, complicated protagonist and inviting us to attempt an answer to that question, "What was she thinking?"