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American Wife Paperback – 2009

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Product Details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Black Swan (2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0552775541
  • ISBN-13: 978-0552775540
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 3.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 358 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,180,258 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

American Wife - Sittenfeld, Curtis - Black Swan

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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By Reader Writer Runner TOP 50 REVIEWER on May 30 2011
Format: Paperback
My first read of 2010 was the latest novel by one of my favourite authors, Curtis Sittenfeld (of Prep and The Man of My Dreams). American Wife, which is based on the life of Laura Bush, represents a bit of a departure from Sittenfeld's usual style but still contains the elements of talented authorship: developed and personable characters, vividly descriptive settings and an intriguing plot. Sittenfeld divides her novel into four sections: The protagonist, Alice, as a child-come-teenager whose life changes after a heart-breaking tragedy; Alice as a working, single woman who eventually meets the goofy but charming Charlie Blackwell; Alice as a stay-at-home mom frustrated by her husband's childishness and his alcoholism; and, finally, Alice as a reluctant First Lady in the throes of war in the Middle East. I enjoyed the first two sections every bit as much as Sittenfeld's other works but I found the second half of the book disappointing. Old memories keep recurring and past hurts are rehashed; the narrative becomes "skimable" and it feels like the author is simply trying to fill space. I did appreciate the perspective on the "Blackwell" (read: Bush) government, though, as Alice, a registered Democrat, provides interesting insight on an administration in which she struggles to believe.
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Format: Hardcover
The book is divided into four segments, each dealing with a different time period in Alice Lundgren's life. The first section, dealing primarily with Alice's immediate family and her youthful years, is captivating and hold's the reader's intererst. The second section, is much the same but deals with her years as an independent young woman making her way in the world. A tragedy occurs which has a devastating impact on her life, both in younger and future years.

If you have read the editorial reviews, then you already know the outline of the story, so to save time and space, I will not repeat what has already been written. Suffice it to say, as we come to segments three and four (Alice's family life with arrogant, self-centered, thoughtless, future president Charlie Blackwell,) the story fizzles. There is a rehash of old wounds, hurts and life events to the point where it appears the author was merely trying to fill up space. Just when the reader anticipates life will be exciting as a president's wife, the story loses interest. The ending was a rather preditable, uneventful, fairy tale conclusion which, after 555 pages, left me feeling "a somewhat interesting read, but thank goodness it's over." The book had a huge potential if only the captivating beginning had carried through to the end.
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By Gail Cooke TOP 50 REVIEWER on Oct. 7 2008
Format: Audio CD
Many will remember narrator/actress Kimberly Farr as the Brekkian Langor in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Symbiosis". Others won't forget her after hearing her performance of American Wife. She's a many faceted performer with diverse roles on Broadway and television to her credit. Her voice is clear, distinct, perhaps stage trained. She is adept in moving from the tone of an 8-year-old girl to a grandmother to those of middle age, and very effective when Charlie enters the picture.

American Wife is at its heart the story of Alice and Charlie Blackwell. We first meet Alice at a tender age when she has accompanied her grandmother to the grocery store to buy hearts of palm. The year is 1954, and she is an only child, an innocent little girl we are given to believe. She lives with her parents and grandmother in Riley, Wisconsin.

The innocent child grows into a proper young lady who loves books. Tragedy strikes when at 17 a boy to whom she is attracted, Andrew, is killed in an auto accident. It's Alice's fault as she had run a stop sign and tore into his car. His death has a deep effect upon her.

Some years later, at the age of 31, she will meet and marry Charlie Blackstone, the wealthy, hell-raising son of a wealthy Republican family. Little did she know that the Charlie she deems "churlish" will some day be the President of the United States and she First Lady of our land.

Yes, the scene is Wisconsin rather than Texas, but the comparisons, imagined or real, to the life of Laura Bush are obvious. The author has been quoted as saying she " hates George W. And yet I think his wife is sincere, down-to-earth, smart -- and a role model for all Americans. "

An imagined First Lady or Laura Bush revealed? Listen and decide for yourself.

- Gail Cooke
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By Jill Meyer HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on May 3 2010
Format: Paperback
"American Wife" is a huge, juicy, wonderful novel. Obviously based on the life of Laura Welch Bush, Sittenfeld extrapolates from Bush's biography a "back story". It's probably wishful thinking that makes Sittenfeld have her Laura Bush/Alice Blackwell character do in the last chapter the one thing that the real Laura Bush has never done in "real life".

But if Sittenfeld makes free with the ending, she does bring life to Charlie Blackwell and his wife Alice. We see what may have been the attraction between the real George Bush and his wife.

I enjoyed this book and, while long, never bored me in the least.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 399 reviews
135 of 155 people found the following review helpful
Mixed feelings: good story but knowing the background ruins it. Oct. 2 2008
By Mahlers2nd - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
When I ordered this book, I didn't know that it was supposed to be based (loosely or otherwise) on Laura Bush. I ordered it because I am fascinated by what it would be like to be behind the doors of the real White House. (If you want a non-fiction view, I recommend:

America's First Families: An Inside View of 200 Years of Private Life in the White House (Lisa Drew Books)

I did find out that the book was loosely (?) based on Laura Bush's life prior to reading it. It is through that lens that I wound up forming my opinion on the book.

As a work of hypothetical fiction, the book was interesting and entertaining. You meet a lot of characters in the book -- particularly the early life of Alice -- that you wouldn't expect to meet in a midwest middle class traditional family and you catch a glimpse of that period that is outside the Kennedy "Camelot" rose-colored glasses. From that perspective, as a novel, it stretches your imagination and makes for a book that is "out of the ordinary".

However, knowing that it is based in part on the life of Laura Bush -- I think this really does a disservice to the book and to the woman. I don't have strong feelings about Laura Bush either way but by making this a work of fiction, you constantly find yourself wondering which parts were true and which ones were not. If everything was true, then you get a very unkind picture of the person who is Laura Bush. If much of it is untrue, then you feel sorry for Laura Bush for being "slandered" and the voyeurism into what should be very private events, feelings and thoughts for this very public person. You feel a little guilty even reading it.

I think the author would have been better off not trying to tie this novel to any particular person. That way, there would not be the "distraction" that you ultimately feel as you read trying to separate fact from fiction.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
I Wish I Could Recommend It June 20 2009
By N. Adams - Published on
Format: Paperback
This book started out so, so good, but then just degenerated into a bunch of diatribes that felt false, fake and set-up. Ostensibly based on the life of Laura Bush (although in a historical fiction kind of way), I found myself really enjoying the main character - be it the good, bad or whatever. She felt REAL. But then it just fell apart for me. It felt like the author set out to put in anything and everything that could have maybe happened (or had been "reported" to have happened) instead of remaining true to Laura/Alice. Sittenfeld spent the mid part of the book dealing with George's alcohol issue, but mostly in a tabloid kind of way. This is the way the rest of the book went. There was a paragraph that chronicled his rise from Governor to President. A paragraph. And while I realize this was about Laura, surely there could have been a better way to do this. It's a long book. There should have been a better transition, or time spent elsewhere that would have kept this reader's interest instead of dealing with the minutiae into details that, from all accounts, were not a big deal.

The ending was weak and didn't seem in character at all. Again, enjoyed the character development from the beginning, but it just felt like a chore about mid-way through. Not recommended.
100 of 125 people found the following review helpful
Loved it Sept. 2 2008
By B. Lee - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Great summaries in the other reviews - I won't repeat those.

I loved the beginning and middle of this book. Loved Alice, her childhood, her growing up experiences, her family, her life as a single woman, her courtships, her experiences with the Blackwell family (these were my favorite sections), and her relationship with her husband, the future president. All of these things are plot lines that Sittenfeld wrote BRILLIANTLY.

When I finished reading this book, however, I was lukewarm about the ending. 2 weeks later, when I was still thinking about the book, I realized how fervently it had stuck with me, and have since decided that it was one of my favorites of 2008 so far.

Great work, Curtis. I praise your boldness and your talent for writing about women in a sometimes awkward and uncomfortable but always honest fashion. Definitely worth the read.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Absorbing - but what is fact and what is fiction? Sept. 9 2009
By Ralph Blumenau - Published on
Format: Paperback
I wish I had not known beforehand (and Sittenfeld's Acknowledgments at the end make it clear) that this book was inspired by biographies of Laura Bush. I knew relatively little about Laura Bush and googled an outline of her life. I found that in her teens she had accidentally killed a boy friend in a car crash, and when this episode appears early in this novel, it reinforced (and was obviously meant to reinforce) the parallel between Alice Lindgren and Laura Bush, even if a note at the beginning says that while Alice's husband and his parents are `recognizable', `all other characters [i.e. including Alice herself] in the novel are products of the author's imagination, as are the incidents concerning them'.

But, in view of the car accident which really did happen, it is hard not to ask oneself exactly what is invented and what is not. For example: did Laura Bush have a wise and lesbian grandmother? Did she have an abortion at the age of 17? Did her marriage nearly break up at one point? And there are some extensively described sexual scenes with three different men, which is not unusual these days in an ordinary novel; but if one associates them with Laura Bush (and can one help that?), they strike a voyeuristic note and are to my mind an impertinence.

The novel occasionally has unnecessarily detailed descriptions of clothes and of furniture, and there are quite a lot of episodes that are not in themselves particularly interesting or contribute to the story line. But the main characters are well developed and the main story line is compelling - so much so that the reservations I have expressed in the previous paragraph gradually faded, and I was truly absorbed to the very end of this very long book.

I know too little about Laura Bush to judge whether Alice is like her. Did Laura come from a Democratic family, was vaguely Democrat herself, but gave that up when she married the Republican George W Bush and became a loyal political wife? One can hardly not have an idea about Bush; so how convincing a likeness is Charlie Blackwell as being modelled on him? I would say `very much so': the boyish charm and grin, the virility, the passion for baseball, the heavy drinking, the political ambition, the family clannishness - they are all there; and when Alice's wise old grandmother comments that Charley's `ambition exceeds his talent', that is true of Bush also. The way Sittenfeld describes the behaviour of the clan to which Charlie belongs is quite brilliantly done, though I did not find Charley's parents as `recognizable' as Sittenfeld claims in her prefatory note: his father (who in the novel had never been President) is not well developed, and his mother, very much the matriarch, is a much more intimidating figure than what I think I know about the strong but rather comfortable Barbara Bush.

Charlie/George W duly becomes a born-again Christian and gives up alcohol. At this point we are five-sixth through the book, and so far most of it has been a prolonged and subtle dissection of the personal relationship between Laura and Charlie. Then it suddenly skips over the next 15 years or so - the years of his state governorship and then his first term as President - straight into his second term (though there will be occasional flash-backs to those intervening years). The focus of Alice's narration now changes, and we have interesting reflections of how an unassuming, relatively unpolitical, straightforward and honest woman has to adjust to being a First Lady - not only what it does to her private life, how she copes with the publicity and with the rat-pack of journalists, but also how, as a loyal wife of the President, she has to suppress her decent instincts in the face of the issues and cynical machinations of her husband's administration. She comes out of this reasonably well, though some people would not think so: there is a magnificent scene in which she is confronted by a 104 year old woman whom she has known in her youth and who taxes her for not speaking out forthrightly on the abortion issue. She loves her husband and has an affectionate understanding for his weaknesses as well as for his attractive qualities, and she is inclined to put much of the blame for his foreign policy onto the domination of Arnold Prouhet (the Dick Cheney figure) over a weaker and shallower personality (and it seems to me that Sittenfeld , too, may have this view of George W Bush). But at the end of the book she wrestles with her conscience: true, she was not the President; true, the American public elected him and not her; but should she not have done more to use her influence, at least to the extent of challenging his policies in private? In the end, in a moving passage, Alice takes a step which I wonder whether Laura Bush ever took.

If Alice is a true character portrait of Laura Bush, it explains why Laura Bush had a much higher popularity rating than her husband.
51 of 68 people found the following review helpful
"What was she thinking?" Oct. 6 2008
By Ashley Megan - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
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?"

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