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Originally published Friday, September 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"American Wife" imagines the life of first lady Laura Bush

Curtis Sittenfeld's "American Wife" takes the life of Laura Bush and turns it into a provocative novel that explores the clash between private and public life in today's political/celebrity culture.

Special to The Seattle Times

"American Wife"

by Curtis Sittenfeld

Random House, 558 pp., $26

An attractive 31-year-old elementary-school librarian gets swept off her feet by a wealthy man she meets at a barbecue. They marry quickly. He runs unsuccessfully for Congress. He buys a baseball team. He drinks too much but gives it up when he becomes evangelically "born again." He becomes governor of his state, and eventually president of the United States in a divisive election. Now, the reserved first lady tells her side of things in this "memoir."

No, first lady Laura Bush has not spilled the beans. Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the best-selling novel "Prep" (2005), has written the novel "American Wife" to explore provocative questions about the intersection of personal and political issues in the life of a woman whose marriage has given her a public role she did not seek.

The parallels in this novel to Laura Bush's life go even further: like Bush, "American Wife" narrator Alice Lindgren Blackwell was the teenage driver who ran a stop sign and caused a car accident that left her high-school classmate dead. Like Bush, the narrator was brought up the only child in a Democratic household, and married into a staunchly Republican political family. Like Bush as first lady, Alice promotes important but noncontroversial issues such as breast-cancer awareness and literacy.

But there are also differences: Alice's grandmother lives with her family throughout her childhood, and this character's shrewd observations, experiences and desires are eye-opening and consciousness-raising for Alice. This well-drawn character, who provides all the momentum for plot elements that differ from Laura Bush's life, is crucial to making this project work as fiction.

Alice is reserved, pragmatic, tolerant, suspicious of "coastal urbanites" and deeply rooted in her appreciation of plain-spoken Midwestern ways. She dislikes the self-regard of her husband, his family and social milieu, but considers it good manners to go along. She accepts her husband Charlie's bonhomie and dilatory work habits. After an argument early in their relationship, she explains her agreement not to fight with him this way: "by generation, gender and geography, and above all, by temperament, I was good at agreement and good at avoidance."

Alice ruminates on the evolution of her marriage: She didn't set out to marry a president, but here she is, and in flashbacks she considers the incremental accommodations in her identity that have led her to this point. Her favorite children's book is, tellingly, "The Giving Tree," a 1964 picture book by Shel Silverstein. Ostensibly about a tree's unconditional love for a boy, the book can also be interpreted (especially in the context of Sittenfeld's novel) as an apology for extreme self-sacrifice to the point of accepting abuse. No identity could be more obliterating to a woman than the novel's title itself, "American Wife," which suggests that a woman loses her identity when she becomes a wife.

Does Sittenfeld succeed in creating a character who stands on her own, separate from Laura Bush? In part she does, due to the character of Alice's grandmother, and her effect on Alice. Alice makes a few independent moves and a revelation at the end that are likely to impress readers, depending on their political views on abortion and the current war. Feminist readers will not find a heroine with a hungry heart here, but neither will they find a tragedy of a repressed woman. Sittenfeld's drama from page to page makes this story highly engaging.

Whatever you think of Laura Bush or her husband's administration, she can't help but be linked to people's perceptions and political opinions, and it is this murky private publicness that Sittenfeld examines in fascinating depth.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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