I skipped over Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, about a fictional first lady substantially based on Laura Bush, when it was released in 2008, in part because in the final year of the Bush administration, I wasn’t in a mood to feel sympathy for anyone in the first family. But when I finally read the novel, four years removed from the Bushs’ departure from public life, and four years into the Obama administration, I found myself surprisingly touched. The journey of Alice Lindgren from small-town Wisconsin, to a job teaching public school, to marriage with Charlie Blackwell, the son of a prominent family, and eventually to the White House required me to confront the extent to which I’d put aside my tendency to be curious about people because of Laura Bush’s place at her husband’s side. And while the novel holds Alice accountable for her decision to subsume her independent political and moral instincts in her husband’s public life, it also makes clear the cost that she’s paid for a decision that, from the outside and in the real world, I treated as if it was despicable and idiotic.
First, there is the car accident. In real life, Laura Bush’s accidental killing of her high school classmate, a young man who has in some cases been reported to have been a current or former boyfriend of hers, when she ran a stop sign has sometimes been treated as a sign of frivolity or self-absorption. American Wife takes seriously the prospect that the boy Alice killed was, if not her boyfriend, about to assume that role in her life. In the novel, Alice kills Andrew, who had previously dated her best friend Dana, on the way to a bonfire that would have been their first official date. “I loved him, I loved him completely, and I knew that he loved me back,” she writes of the plan for that meeting. “Or maybe this is only what I think now. But it was all we ever had! Approaching each other, him from the gym, me from the library—this was when I walked down the aisle and hew as waiting, this was when we made love, it was every anniversary, every reunion in an airport or train station, ever reconciliation after a quarrel. This was the whole of our lives together.” Alice Lindgren was a person before she was First Lady, and she continues to be, even as she becomes a symbol. It’s easy to forget that people we dislike deserve that minimal courtesy.
And it’s interesting to see how people we might once have extended the courtesy of considering their actions in the most charitable light become the people we stop extending any courtesies to at all. With Alice, her withdrawal from her life as a teacher, and from the public performance of her own principals, begins when she meets Charlie, who is initially charmed by her dedication to her job as a librarian, but who has enormous reservoirs of need of his own. Alice speculates that her husband pursued office not “Because he wanted to prove that he was as smart and ambitious as his brothers, journalists speculated, or because he wanted to avenge his father’s own humiliating presidential run in 1968…[But] because of his fear of the dark. Because if he were governor, and then president, he’d be guarded by state troopers and later by agents, he’d never be far from people specifically assigned to watch out for him; he might be assassinated, but he wouldn’t have to walk down a shadowy hallway by himself.” What the novel doesn’t say is that public office also allows Alice to share the burden of Charlie once she begins to learn what kind of person he is, the contempt with which he’s regarded by his family, the enormity of his need. “I felt such an intimate kind of anger,” she thinks of him during one of their fights. “Was this what marriage was, the slow process of getting to know another individual far better than was advisable? Sometimes Charlie’s gestures and inflections were so mercilessly familiar that it was as if he were an extension of me, an element of my own personality over which I had little control.” His public life allows him to direct those gestures and inflections at other people, just as the arrival of Reverend Randy, the man who counsels Charlie through his addiction and brings him to born-again Christianity, lifts the burden on Alice to support Charlie where he is most unlikable.