As a teenager, Alice Lindgren ran a stop sign in her family's car and inadvertently killed one of her classmates. While no charges were filed, Alice never escaped the feeling that the accident, resulting in the death of a boy she might have loved, put her life on a new, wrong course. Her new path included marrying Charlie Blackwell and becoming involved with his family, a wealthy, influential clan whose patriarch once ran for president. Charlie is exuberant but immature, susceptible to drink and feelings of inadequacy; while Alice is drawn to his openness, she struggles with his irresponsibility and selfishness. Eventually, Charlie's obsession with legacy leads him to a political career, which could potentially put his inexperience under the pressures of the highest office in the land.
All this may sound a little familiar. In her note at the beginning of American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld writes that her novel was "inspired by the life of an American First Lady," but even without the note, only the most culturally ignorant would fail to recognize the outline of Laura Bush peeking through the pages. There's the tact, the compassion without intensity, and, of course, the obvious presence of George W. Throughout, Stittenfeld pulls no punches, but refuses to pass direct judgment on her heroine. Alice narrates the novel, and her calm, mannered prose expresses Wife's conflict: When the fault lines in the Blackwells' marriage become magnified over a nation, what responsibility does she have, to her husband and to herself?
Attempting to get into the mind of prominent public figures, especially ones still embroiled in as much controversy as the Bushes, is problematic. A fictionalized protagonist can be easily conflated with its all-too-real counterpart, turning the story into something less than its own. Sittenfeld doesn't entirely solve the problem; the political bent of American Wife's final section, while currently relevant, makes the narrative feel dated, taking the focus away from character in order to score a few easy points. Wife works best when reconciling how one person can love someone else for his or her limitations while still dreading how those limitations affect the world; its greatest success is in earning a measure of sympathy for its heroine without ever ignoring her guilt.