Wednesday, July 29, 2009

American Husband

Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife is Alice, a bookish midwestern lady living a straight-arrow life. How does she end up with Charlie, a charming rich boy with the world at his feet and no real interest in doing anything with it?

(I'm working on keeping spoilers out of this post, and I'm doing okay with that regarding the specific events of the book, but the emotional path of the narrative is spelled out below, so be warned.)

So this is a novelization of the life of Laura Bush, and I had a hard time with it. I loved the first 100 pages, because she's such a likable character. I wonder, however much the circumstances echo real ones, how like Laura Bush she is in character. Then, she meets Charlie, and his charm and good nature win her over. Unfortunately, they totally turned me off, and I put the book down for a while.

In the meantime, Linden read it, and we had an interesting conversation. I don't want to give too much of the book away, but now that I'm further along (though still not yet done), I can see Linden's side of our argument a little better. I still hold the same opinion, though.

My opinion is that I hate Charlie. It's not just that he's clearly modeled on G. W. Bush, of whom I was and am no fan. I was able to pick the book back up by setting aside those similarities, and I could see, then how his charm could be, well, charming. But I still feel pretty solidly that I was rooting for her to dump him, even when he was still at his most adorable.

Later (seriously, I'm trying for no spoilers here), I understand Linden's assessment that it's a book about her marriage to a very flawed man. It's not about him being great, it's about him being good in some ways and not in others, and how that works in their marriage. I would push that a little further and say it's about her being married to someone who's pretty much an ass, but not such a complete ass---- that she has no choice but to leave him. So I guess I see it as being about a flawed marriage, but a marriage to a man who's somewhere worse than flawed--somewhere in the unlikeable range.

And I stand by my assessment that Alice lives precariously. She's about not rocking the boat, she's about doing things under the table, about keeping her true self--who she socializes with, the causes she donates to--off the radar of the people who populate her life. Because for the most part, her life is populated with people whose values she works very hard to respect, without ever quite getting there. She keeps her head down, she tries to see the good side of things; she wants a peaceable life, and she will hold on to that peace with white knuckled silence. She hates the fact that the country club doesn't admit Jews or blacks, but she doesn't consider leaving it, because everyone belongs there. Not because she wants to see them, or keep up with them, but because she'd have to explain to them why she's taking a stand, offend them, upset them. That pretty much sums up her marriage, too.

I still want her to dump him. I know, of course, that she won't, but I'm still rooting for her.

I think I put in more spoilers than I meant to. Sorry about that.

No comments: