17 Feb 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Oh, Ms. Sittenfeld. So many thoughts about you and your books, and so very little time to synthesize them. I’ve talked about her before, last year when I read Man of My Dreams and I don’t really want to repeat myself… so I’ll just quote myself instead.

“Curtis Sittenfeld wrote Prep a few years back, a pretty convincingly YA book marketed as Adult. Anyway, Prep was pretty succesfull, and everyone doted upon Sittenfeld for being a young, talented female writer of something other than TRASHY CHICK LIT. Sittenfeld wrote an article for the New York times, reviewing Melissa Banks’s The Wonder Spot and calling it the bane of female literature, and officially casting the term “Chick Lit” as a black mark of literary condescension usually reserved for the romance novel.”

So that’s that. American Wife is her newest book, and probably her most notable. Notable why? Because it’s even further away from that dreaded “Chick Lit” title (although that is debateabl)? Because it’s more ambitious than her previous works? Because it’s better written, more interesting, more insightful?

No, no, no.

Because the protagonist is a fictionalized Laura Bush.

Alice Lindgren is a wholesome, reserved Midwestern girl (subtract Wisconsin, add Texas) living with her conservative parents and a live-wire grandmother. Much like Sittenfeld’s other heroines, Alice doesn’t neccessarily do much to direct her fate. Life happens to her. She rolls with the punches. When her best friend steals her boyfriend in middle school, she forgives her. When she’s involved with the accidental death of a classmate, she mourns quietly. When a handsome, charming son of privilege begins to woo her, she allows herself to be wooed. And when he is eventually elected President, she is the First Lady.

So there are complaints:

1) A sensational topic for a novel. What a total ploy for readership! Would it be worth reading otherwise?

2) She claims to loathe Chick Lit, therefore her own books must transcend this moniker…. yet this book is still a Book About A Girl who is mostly concerned with her Relationships.

3) Why are her characters soooo very bland and unexciting? Can she write us a NEW protagonist already?

4) Is it cruel to Laura Bush to write a book that lifts so heavily from her own life? I don’t know.

So my feelings about Ms. Sittenfeld are mixed with a side of “I can’t stand her.” This, of course, is based on one tiny article (that happened to be published in the NYTimes, mind you. I’m sure she’s a perfectly nice person) And I can’t really read her books and, in good faith, declare them to be bastiens of Literature.

But I still like them.

I like her quiet characters – even though they rarely make a life-changing decision, and the ones they do make (Alice Lindgren especially) are so weak they are barely even symbolic of change, I still feel for them. I still want to be their friends. I still like to hear what they have to say.

I like Ms. Sittenfeld’s proclivity for the understated tone – there could not be a less assuming roman à clef out there. And I don’t mind that she lifted the idea from pop culture because, unlike some other authors, it’s an extremely interesting take on a pseudo-public figure.

And she can certainly tell a story.

And that’s all I really want from a book, when it comes down to it. Take me somewhere else and don’t let me go until I’m turning those last few pages, desperate to know what will happen to Alice, to The President, to their marriage….then spit me out.

I’ll be ready and waiting for her next book.

Curtis Sittenfeld online | NY Times Review | Indiebound Link

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