I received the book American Wife as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. It is the latest novel by Prep author Curtis Sittenfeld and draws on the life of Laura Bush for much of the formation of the main characters and events. It is a long and detailed story of how a reserved (but not conservative), intelligent woman ended up the wife of the President of the United States.
The books starts off strong with a compelling description of teenage life in the early 1960s in middle America. I was drawn in by the dramatic events of most of the first part and quite interested to see how these events would shape and drive this young woman -- as I was sure they would.
I will admit I was not a big fan of Prep. I wanted very much to like it and by the description it sounded very much like a book I would definitely like, but it had one fatal flaw -- the main character. I had no empathy or even sympathy for her. American Wife suffers from the same problem. I can't find many reasons to warm up to Alice. She's so reserved and so rigid and so downright prissy that I just couldn't care about her. I can't help thinking that Ms. Sittenfeld was so afraid of having her novel referred to as "chick lit" that she stripped out all the humor, all the passion and all the foibles of Alice -- in other words all the things that make us root for the women who star in all those "chick lit" novels. If I could have cared about Alice more, and rooted for her then this story might have been a lot more human.
Alice never really overcomes, she never really shows passion and she doesn't even stand behind her husband or her own convictions. So, for me, the book, like Alice herself, slowly stagnates after the first part. If Alice had been passionate about her husband, rather than accepting, had thrown herself into supporting him, or thrown herself into motherhood or really anything it would have been a much more interesting story. Instead we ended up with story of how a rather stilted woman came to be. For Laura Bush's sake I hope the similarities between her life and Alice's are limited to the major events only.
08/30/08 Update: As I could have predicted this book is the cover review in the NY Times book review section this week. It is reviewed by Joyce Carol Oates no less, who must be an incredibly kind reviewer because although she doesn't say she enjoyed the book she doesn't pan it either. She just talks around it. I don't know who Ms. Sittenfeld knows at the NY Times, but she sure is lucky to know them.