Unabridged Chick

I'm Audra, a 30-something married lesbian. I love interesting heroines, gorgeous prose, place as character, and the occasional werewolf.
American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld For now, a non-review. My reflection for Literary Wives. It's long, I'm sorry, and I sound like a nut job, I know.In SummaryThis book blew my mind: I hated it, or maybe I loved it. I'm really torn.I will say I read this nearly 600 page book in about two days, unable to stop, consumed with curiosity.  My opinion on it will, I'm sure, shift and change with time, and while I haven't written my review yet, I hope to soon.  (There's a good deal about Sittenfeld's writing style, the episodes she chooses to focus on, the graphic sex! that I'll talk about in my review since it doesn't fit here.) The proposed frame to kick off the conversation are these two questions:1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?First, A Confession and Then An Apology I will admit that this novel provoked me politically and I've been really working to separate my political values from this conversation -- but for me, the personal is political blah blah and much of my response to this novel is shaped by my own personal values.  Here's hoping I can convey that well without being offensive!  Also, sorry this is a small novel.Who is a Wife?(In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?)The title of this book in particular just amplifies this question, for our heroine is not just defined by being a wife, she's also THE American Wife at one point.  Alice Blackwell (our fictional Laura Bush), is defined by wife for her whole life -- aspiring to be one, fearing she may never be one, becoming one.  In fact, a good deal of the novel dealt with the pleasures, pains, tragedies, and tradeoffs of romantic partnership (both those that occur and those that fizzle away and die).Her being defined by her marriage, however, only seems to become particular to her identity when her husband takes political office; before that, being a wife seems to be one of the many parts of her life, from being a librarian, a mother, a competent party planner, a supportive in-law, or a reader.  On Life Partnership(What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?)Returning to the first question, I'll admit to some real hostility when looking at Alice's marriage and her experience as a wife.  Although Sittenfeld is careful to articulate a woman who, for the most part, is happy with her marriage, I couldn't help but read this book as a beautifully written subsummation of someone rather interesting into someone rather boorish.  Alice is everything her husband isn't, and at no point does Alice ever seem to flounder for self-identity, and yet she spends most of the novel justifying not only why she doesn't really care what her husband does but why she doesn't feel a need to stop him, sway him, press back against him, or leave him. I'm being glib: she cares what he does, obviously, and yet -- especially during the sections when her husband is in political office -- she lives with little desire to be a separate entity from her husband.  When she thinks about how much she doesn't want her husband to run for office, she simply says she doesn't believe she can tell him what to do; when she's misquoted in the media, she doesn't bother to correct people; when she shares a politically inexpedient opinion, she's happy to let the White House scramble to correct assumptions about what that means; when she commits a betrayal that will likely break her husband's heart, she does it in a way that affects and impacts absolutely nothing.  It was such a staggering handing over of will, agency, and self-direction, I was breathless with wonder for most of the book.  This was where I felt the most resentment and dislike for Alice and where I thought for sure she and I had nothing in common when it came to our marriages and experiences as wives.BUT.  I had an 'ah-ha'.When I met my wife, close to a decade ago (!wow!), she was in divinity school studying to be a Christian minister.  I was working for a non-Christian religious organization doing justice advocacy and was up to my nose in ministers.  The last thing I wanted was to date a minister, but she was smart and funny and pretty and I was really, really intrigued.  Despite my determination to avoid ministers, I ended up falling in love with one, and for a good four years, found myself looking at a future as a pastor's wife.  All the things I had no patience or interest in -- churches, Sunday services, Jesus, potluck, Christian holidays, funerals, pastoral counseling -- were suddenly part and parcel of my life, and even though it was never a life I would have chosen for myself, I wasn't going to give up my then-girlfriend over it.  I maintained my non-Christian beliefs and attended church on Sundays and made nice to the well-meaning congregants because it made my wife happy, because I wanted to be a part of something that was important to her, and because this was my wife's vocation and who was I to tell her what to do?Yeah, I'll admit to being shocked I used half the arguments Alice did.So even though my wife and I share the same political beliefs, I suddenly understood Sittenfeld's angle and focus on this famous couple.  While I wanted to loathe Alice for loving a man whose political beliefs are so antithetical to mine I literally get foamy at the mouth thinking about it, she has the same values and desires I do: to have the opportunity to spend her life with someone she loves and admires even she when doesn't agree with them. While reading this book, I kept thinking back to Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife, a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  (The Aviator's Wife is our August pick!)  Anne was married to another intensely political public figure with whom she didn't always agree with; while reading The Aviator's Wife I felt more sympathy toward Anne than I did toward Alice, but upon finishing both books, I think I respect Alice more.  Anne was a wife and soldiered on as a partner to her husband, but almost unfailing as his shadow and cheerleader; Alice, despite my pretending otherwise, used the privilege and eventually the power granted to her by her husband, and her being a wife -- a president's wife -- allowed her to amplify her ability to affect change in a way Anne never did. In ConclusionSittenfeld writes this one in first person, with Alice at some points literally appealing to the reader to understand her decisions.  At the time, I resisted, mostly because I'm a giant Judgy McJudgerton but having some space, I think I can appreciate her arguments, her appeal to understand her American marriage, and the mythology behind a 'solid' marriage.