I might as well say right out the gate that reading American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld, was often like wrestling with an alligator – or at least it felt like what I imagine alligator wrestling to feel like. All just a way of saying it was a challenge for me on many levels — none of which should dissuade any of you from reading the book, however. I find it more difficult than I’d thought it would be to write succinctly about my experience. The role of the wife is blurred by issues of character, theme, and technique. But many was the night I couldn’t put the book down even though my eyes were burning with exhaustion. That says a lot for Ms. Sittenfeld‘s storytelling abilities – she definitely reels you in and keeps you on the line the whole way through.
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American Wife is the first-person narrative of Alice Lindgren, a rural middle-class Midwestern girl coming of age in Wisconsin the 1950s and 60s whose voice — at least initially — reminded me a lot of Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. If you know Scout, you’ll understand this is a good thing. Alice possesses a storyteller’s voice, and not one that sensationalizes the narrative, making you doubt her reliability and question her sincerity. This is the voice of a girlfriend, someone you’d sit on the porch of an evening with, sharing confidences over a glass of wine. This is a voice the reader has little reason to doubt, simply because she doesn’t hide anything from you – she tells you how she felt, good and bad, and what happened to her, good and bad, knowing full well that “times have changed” and her modern reader might have opinions and judgments that contradict or conflict with her own. She doesn’t try to hide who she is, nor does she hide the heaviness of the secrets and the past she carries with her on into adulthood. In the beginning, Alice possesses a clarity of perspective, an honest approach to confiding her story, and a fragile nature which at times struggles to breathe in the miasma of life-altering events that come all to close to suffocating her as a young adult. The weight of these events and the humanness they confer on Alice’s character makes the reader trust her, care about her, and want to know. It was this sense of wanting to know that kept me turning the pages and made me care very much what happened to this woman.
But that is all in the beginning . . .
The intense events Alice experiences as a young adult change her, and after the first section of the novel it is hard, if not impossible, to believe that it is the same Alice Lindgren telling the story. To escape the emotional trauma of adolescent tragedy, she moves away from her hometown and becomes a librarian. She seems to love this career, yet leaves it with nary a pang when the man of her dreams, socialite Charlie Blackwell, asks to marry her. She and Charlie soon marry and the remainder of the novel chronicles their tumultuous marriage and rise through the upper echelons of wealthy American society amidst bids for governmental office, first at the state level and culminating with the presidency of the United States.
At first, I sensed the maturing Alice, who has lived her life and is looking back telling the story, is very much the same young girl who struggled to maintain a sense of self, ideals, and principles in a world where those things were vastly shifting and being redefined. However, as the story went on I struggled over and over with trusting this narrator/character who seemed so intent on confiding her innermost secrets and yet moved through life as a chameleon of sorts, never making waves and always doing what was expected of her, even if doing so meant she needed to betray herself and live a lie, which she repeatedly exposed via her confidences. At one point Alice tells her husband that she may disagree with him, but she’ll never tell anyone that she does. And yet the entire book is an expose of the ways in which she disagrees with her husband. Thus she is caught in the act of betraying not only him, but of placing herself in a questionable position as to her ultimate reliability as a narrator.
It was hard for me to determine how Sittenfield wanted me to think about Alice – and maybe that is the author’s trump card: because the temptation for this reader was to want to judge Alice, but in doing so I would have to similarly judge myself. Because how often, and with whom, are we ever truly ourselves? When do we not have something to hide? When do we compromise when we should stand up? When do we look the other way and subtly decide to participate in the lie rather than call attention to ourselves as the only believer in truth? These are all questions the careful reader is forced to confront in the book and they make for uncomfortable, if revealing, reading.
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As I reflected on how to respond to this novel, I was reminded of a quote from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, that “a man becomes another thing in war.” What other thing does a woman become in marriage? It seems there are multiple possibilities, and not all of them, at least as portrayed in this novel, are favorable or desirable.
How does Alice define what it means to be a wife? She has the example of her mother – a quiet, calm woman who never rocks the boat and who chose marriage and the relocation it provided her to get away from a toxic family situation – and her grandmother, a widow with a secret life. In both cases, these early examples of what it means to be a wife present Alice with definitions that center on escape and secrecy. Perhaps we ought not to be surprised to find out that these seem to be the central motivating forces that propel her in her interactions with others.
Alice’s tell-all approach gives the reader the sense that she isn’t keeping anything back. And she says repeatedly that she’s only ever been herself, implying that she is true and steadfast even in the midst of efforts and events that seek to change her. Caught in a less than charitable moment of criticism of her married friends, she calls herself on it before the reader can. The trouble is that neither Alice nor the reader ever really knows who that “self” is and whether or not the self being described is the real Alice. She comes across as a chameleon, one skilled at blending into the situation so deftly that no one can comment that a hair is out of place. Alice is eminently presentable, flawless…on the surface. Hence, the “wife” in the novel seems to be defined as a non-entity, an object, and a liar. These definitions do not come only from the outside, but are actively participated in and adopted by Alice herself, albeit with much protestation.
Alice tells us early on that she’d stopped thinking of marriage as my birthright. It wasn’t just that I no longer considered myself inherently deserving or that I no longer believed I was looked after by the universe. It was also that I would not want to marry a man unless I could show myself to him truly – I had no interest in tricking anyone – but I couldn’t imagine showing myself to most men, revealing myself as someone more complicated than I seemed. If thinking of the exertion and explanations that would require discouraged me, it also made me calm. (p. 122-23) This all sounds very noble, except that Alice doesn’t behave according to this belief in choosing Charlie. Charlie is a game player, as is his whole family, and ultimately is shown to be out for himself alone with little to no regard for others, including his wife. (Sorry – that’s harsh, but no less true. I found absolutely nothing attractive or redeeming in his character and never was able to stop wondering what in the world she saw in this man.) Her marriage to Charlie undercuts everything Alice asserts here and so this “wife,” while she may reveal herself (seemingly) to the reader, is not only quantifiably unable to reveal herself in her marriage, but to even be herself on any substantial level.
This is sad because, in spite of everything Alice says she loves about Charlie, there are no shortage of cues as to his true nature. Consider that he has no respect for her career, that he allows her to be humiliated in front of his family and excuses their behavior, that he regularly commits adultery the “easy way” through pornography, that he misses important scheduled events so that he can do what he wants to do, and that he simply doesn’t “listen” to her or even see her. He wants a trophy wife who will work for him and be what he needs her to be. All of these things are game-changers, and yet Alice chooses him over and over again, and with each “yes” allows her “self” to become more and more invisible. She says she’s always never less than herself, and yet we constantly see her as less than herself and even willingly so. It is this difficulty of figuring out who she is and what she wants that makes the novel both compelling and frustrating. Any one who feels compelled to repeat over and over again that she is herself and true to herself and has always been herself is suspect. Alice in this bears a frightening similarity to Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet who, when confronted with the truth that one like her has been less than honest with herself and everyone else in spite of all her fancy speeches to the contrary, famously states “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Alice for sure protests too much.
I wondered at this and was struck by the possibility that perhaps, for all her protests, this erasure of self is just what Alice wanted because it truly is the easiest. It is so much easier to be victimized, to be swallowed whole, to be passive, than to act and assert and work and be. Love isn’t easy – real love is hard and real love within marriage might be said to be the hardest of all simply because spouses have no where to hide from the truth of themselves. Contrary to what our popular culture tries to assert, real married love isn’t about gratifying the self. Real love asks for some self-sacrifice and seeks the ultimate good of the other. This is not a worldly good. Real love demands radical authenticity and a continually conscious assent to a greater effort to live in truth and to accept the truth about the other one is in relation with. But real love doesn’t mean a burial of self, nor does it mean that silence in the face of injustice, abuse, or other actions which demean human life or the relationship is ever acceptable. Real compromise does not mean self-annihilation. It might be easier to let the demons in a relationship run wild and wreak havoc, but this doesn’t make it okay. To be fair, there is a sense that Alice makes moves towards this real love. She does leave Charlie at one point and she does make efforts in the marriage that demand sacrifice; however, these efforts seem to pale in comparison to the compromises she makes that are neither healthy nor authentic, compromises which do not seek the good of either spouse. And in evaluating her actions in all of this, I was forced to confront my own actions. It is this sense that in watching and examining and evaluating Alice one is doing the same to oneself that saves the novel. It is also the strongest testament to Sittenfeld’s ability as a writer, this way she has of turning the tables, of making it not so easy to judge.
One especially problematic incident demands to be noted. Alice’s failure to act moves into territory that is unforgiveable when it affects an innocent child. Her refusal to confront her husband about his pornographic stash not only implies her tacit acceptance of it, but makes her complicit in any damaging effect it might have on others. When a young child encounters the material, neither Alice, nor Charlie, nor even the child’s parent reacts with the appropriate outrage and sense of seriousness the situation demands, for it is nothing short of child abuse. As an educator, Alice cannot pretend ignorance of mandated reporting laws. For me, this was when I faltered in my reading and came close to not finishing the book. From a craft perspective, Sittenfeld nails it because she is able to evoke stomach turning horror in the way this scene plays out and the bitter taste of the residual fallout. But she also takes incredible risk because the reader has pretty much nothing to go on from that point in terms of caring about Alice. This event could be a moment of grace, an epiphany, in which she responds to the call to act and speak up. Instead, she brushes it off, telling the child she should speak with her parents and saying nothing to Charlie when he laughs about the incident.
You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out if Alice ever takes a stand and becomes “another thing” in this marriage. For this reader, the way a wife is defined in this novel is not anything I want to be defined as. And maybe that is enough — that encountering the opposite provides an opportunity to see one’s way towards being true and honest and whole, both within marriage and without.
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The book is inspired by and based on events in the lives of Laura and George W. Bush; unfortunately, I read the Reader’s Guide in the back of my copy before reading the book. The names of these public figures have been changed to allow Sittenfield to use the actual events of the Bush’s lives as a basic structure, while simultaneously allowing her to embellish and imagine freely those areas which are unexplained or open to interpretation. I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if I HADN’T known about the Bush connection. Also, the graphic bedroom scenes lack dignity and undercut the confidential design of the book — these tell-all incidents make Alice’s character less “real” simply because most women don’t talk like that about their intimate experiences, even with very close friends, and certainly not with complete strangers. I liked Alice less, trusted her less, because of her lack of delicacy here.
I definitely recommend reading this book as one of a group, where you know for a fact you’ll have an opportunity to discuss and share. The book travelled around in my head the entire time I was reading it and even when I wasn’t. It’s the kind of book that needs sounding, so do yourself a favor and read it with a buddy, and by all means weigh in here! Overall, it’s a page-turner and would be perfect for a lazy beach read or a long flight this summer. While my discussion of the book might lead one to believe I didn’t like it, I was glad I read it because it was well-written and made me think. It also allowed me to thoroughly escape from a lot of recent stresses. One can’t ask for more than that, making American Wife worthy of your consideration as you plan your summer reading list.
Did you read the book? What did you think?
A special note of thanks is in order! Maggie Oberrender, Marketing Manager at Random House, generously ensured each of us participating in the Literary Wives cooperative had copies of American Wife, as well as The Paris Wife and The Aviator’s Wife (our second and fourth titles in the series). Thank you, Maggie, for your enthusiasm and for helping us to make this possible!