It is a classic story. The demure small-town librarian swept off her feet by the handsome prince a story with its roots in Cinderella ... and also, in this case, in the rather unbelievable recent history of our country. The librarian is smart and attractive but almost catatonic with guilt: her carelessness behind the wheel once caused the death of a good friend. The prince is charming, as advertised, but also carefree in a way that the librarian envies and mistrusts. He adores her, without question. She succumbs, with reservations. In Curtis Sittenfeld's brilliant novel American Wife, their names are Alice Lindgren and Charles Blackwell, and they come from Wisconsin. But we also know them, on the evening news, as Laura Welch and George W. Bush from Texas.
It is not easy to write fiction inspired by current events, especially if those events involve politics. The stage is too grand, the spotlight too bright. Our public life already is ridiculously flagrant, far too obvious and overwrought for good fiction. And so, all too often, political novels descend from satire into cheap farce. Such books can be entertaining and sometimes cathartic but usually not very nourishing. American Wife is something else entirely the opposite of a political satire, in fact with a languorous pace and a fierce literary integrity: Alice and Charlie are complete creations, unique in their humanity Alice especially. She is the quirky and (usually) reliable narrator. This is the story of her inner life, a place that only fiction can go.
Sittenfeld's audacious gamble is that she can make the reader understand why someone as civilized as Alice would fall for this force of nature and stay with him despite grave misgivings about his public persona. And it is Sittenfeld's triumph that we do. Charlie is a puerile, self-absorbed innocent but not unkind. (Alice would never tolerate that.) He is an excellent father and a faithful husband; the pure pleasure of his company overwhelms Alice's need to punish herself for her lethal mistake. He is clever and insightful his emotional intelligence beggars his intellect and blithely uninformed. His strengths are every bit as apparent as his weaknesses.
Sittenfeld's first novel, Prep, was distinguished by the dead-on observations of upper-class life by a working-class narrator a narrator, one imagines, not unlike Sittenfeld herself, who was jolted from Cincinnati to the rarefied precincts of the Groton School in Massachusetts. There is a similar class consciousness in American Wife, especially in the luscious passages in which Alice describes her first encounters with the Blackwell family at its summer estate, Halcyon, on Lake Michigan. The Blackwells are overwhelming, especially the materfamilias, known as Maj (short for "Her Majesty"). They are classic inbred Wasps, fetishizers of the threadbare there is only one bathroom, with iffy plumbing, at Halcyon for the truckload of Blackwell siblings. They're bawdy for effect (but prudish in reality), overly familiar, competitive to the point of insanity. Alice, of course, imagines that the Blackwells figure her for a gold digger. "What a clever girl you are!" Maj says when Alice blurts out the news of her and Charlie's engagement.
Relations between Alice and her mother-in-law remain frosty for a decade, as Charlie after an unsuccessful run for Congress slips into alcoholism and idly watching ball games and pitying himself as he putters around the family meat packing business. When Alice finally decides she's had enough and uses her mother's home as the halfway house to a formal separation, Maj calls and drops a bomb: the family had been shocked that someone as refined as Alice had chosen Charlie in the first place. "[H]e was a 31-year-old wastrel, making that preposterous congressional run, no less, and he was dating waitresses. We couldn't imagine what you saw in him!"
Alice is dumbstruck "Did all the Blackwells think Charlie was incompetent and foolish? Did everyone?" She reflexively rises to his defense. "Charlie wasn't the runt of the litter," she tells herself. "He wasn't an idiot." Not an idiot, surely, but a President of the United States? At the very moment that Alice realizes how the world sees her Prince Charming, Charlie suddenly gets his act together under her threat of divorce. He is born again as a Christian and becomes the front man for a consortium of businessmen who buy the local baseball team. He is elected governor of Wisconsin. He is elected President.
Sittenfeld boldly skips over the politics that lands Charlie Blackwell in the White House. It is "the part that everybody knows," Alice says, picking up the narrative in the seventh year of the Blackwell presidency. It all seems a whirlwind to Alice, in any case, a tornado spinning too fast to be comprehensible Charlie for President? Charlie as President? Charlie as the ultimate arbiter of war and peace? Indeed, Alice belatedly finds herself facing a moral dilemma: Was it possible that the disaster of Charlie's presidency the war, the thousands dead was her fault, just as the long-ago auto accident had been? Was she, having forced Charlie to sober up and get his act together, responsible for giving the nation this charming but limited man as its President? She is boggled by the simultaneous intimacy and superficiality of public life that the fact that Charlie likes grabbing dinner at a local hamburger stand might be more important than his views on Islam. One can easily imagine, or perhaps hope, that Laura Bush might worry about that too.
Mrs. Bush has glided effortlessly through this presidency without a false step an American sphinx, although one whose very presence conveys intimations of wisdom. Sittenfeld takes full creative advantage of that intelligent vagueness, and her novel encourages readers to do the same. I wonder, for example, what the First Lady would make of Jane Mayer's extraordinary account of the Bush Administration's torture policy, The Dark Side, which I read simultaneously with American Wife. It is no small astonishment that Sittenfeld's portrait of the President and his circle made Mayer's horror story more plausible for me: suddenly you understand how George W. Bush could abdicate his authority and allow Dick Cheney and his alarming chief of staff, David Addington, to abandon the Geneva Conventions and engage in the most gruesome forms of torture. You can easily see Charlie Blackwell whose (inaccurate) notion of the efficacy of torture would have been shaped by Hollywood passing off the tough and the ugly jobs to his number two.
The abdication of personal responsibility on torture, on the war in Iraq (in which authority was transferred first to Cheney and then to David Petraeus), on the regulation of major economic institutions and, of course, after Hurricane Katrina will come to be seen, I suspect, as the defining failure of George W. Bush as President. One hundred years from now, historians will scratch their heads and ask themselves the same question that plagues Alice Blackwell: How did this amiable but feckless man ever get to be President? Curtis Sittenfeld has provided a plausible secret history of an American embarrassment and a grand entertainment.