Today is the first installment of our monthly review of Literary Wives. Woo! Just a reminder: check out Audra, Angela, and Emily today as they post their reviews, and please join in the discussion! If you’re reading along, be sure to post the link to your review of American Wife in the comments and we’ll all take a gander.
If I had known that this book was based on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. I’ve known about the book for quite a while—been mesmerized by the beautiful cover, enchanted by the story line as outlined on the back cover. Of course, I knew it was about “politics,” per se, but I thought it would be a more abstract look at politics—not politics steeped with some of the most powerful emotions and controversies of the last twenty years. After I had chosen it and told the other bloggers about it, I was reading reviews and quickly discovered the truth. Dear God, I groaned. This is going to be terrible.
But then I looked at that back cover again, and I couldn’t help but be pulled in. I still couldn’t help but wonder what being the wife of America’s president was like, and the fact that it at least drew its inspiration from reality gave it an interesting edge. So we still read it, and I’m happy we did.
To give you a quick glance at the storyline that intrigued me so:
*Warning: Plot spoilers ahead!
Alice Lindgren is a quiet, gentle person from small town Midland, Wisconsin. A model, bookish student, she is traumatized at age 17 when, while driving, she fails to see a stop sign in the darkness and crashes into another vehicle—and happens to kill the boy she is in love with, Andrew Imhof. In the wake of her grief, she attempts to absolve herself and assuage her guilt by giving Andrew’s older brother, Pete, what he wants—sex. She becomes pregnant. Her grandmother, who lives with her and her parents, takes her to a Chicago doctor who performs an abortion, though it was illegal then. This doctor, a woman, also happens to be her grandmother’s lover, and it is the first glimpse Alice has of homosexual relationships.
Years later, at 31, Alice is a school librarian in a slightly bigger Wisconsin town. At a friend’s barbecue, she meets Charlie Blackwell—the rich, charismatic, persistent, funny, handsome son of Wisconsin’s most influential Republican family. In a whirlwind romance, they fall in love and are married just a few months later. Charlie tries at first to run for Congress, but loses, to Alice’s relief. For many years, Charlie works at his brother’s meat company, feeling like a failure. Until he has the chance to help buy the Brewers, and eventually is persuaded to run for governor, and the President. Though she was happy in their quiet life, Alice must decide whether and how to support the man she loves when his ideals do not match hers.
This book could have been many things. It could have been a polemic against Republicanism. It could have shouted for abortion and marriage equality, or feminism. And maybe it does. I don’t mean to say that the book doesn’t support radical ideas—I think it does. Alice Lindgren is radical in her gentleness, radical in her empathy for all people, especially those who disagree with her. Ultimately, though, this is a book about a woman and her husband.
I think this question from the series is particularly relevant to this story:
In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
Throughout most of the book, we see Alice again and again seek to define herself as “wife.” She is insecure about the validity of her existence since the crash and as a single woman approaching middle age. When Charlie proposes and she accepts, she says,
I’d traded friendship for romance, companionship for a husband. Was this not a reasonable bargain, one most people would make? I’d no longer be that allegedly eccentric, allegedly pitiable never married woman; my very existence would not pose a question that others felt compelled to try answering.
Again and again, although her ideals differ from Charlie’s and the entire Blackwell family’s, she chooses to remain silent in the hope of maintaining peace. Above anything else, she hates confrontation and studiously avoids it. Even when Charlie ignores her, mistreats her, and acts like the spoiled brat he is, she babies him.
I would follow, I would coddle, in exchange for the smallest amount of respect and sometimes in exchange for less than respect, for mere neutrality. Had anyone been watching, I probably would have seemed like a doormat, but I believed in picking my battles, and there was rarely anything I wanted more than I didn’t want to keep fighting.
For a brief time, Alice considers leaving Charlie, and actually does take their daughter Ella to her mom’s house for a while. And yet she can’t bring herself to actually divorce him. She remembers her dad’s motto: Whatever you are, be a good one. And she remembers that many people besides just she, Charlie, and Ella, would be affected if they got a divorce. So she returns, and at that moment it seems she is making a decision to stick with Charlie no matter what. It certainly appears that way—she follows him to the governor’s mansion and the White House, attending speeches, giving speeches, campaigning, following all of the rules, and fulfilling all of the duties.
However, throughout the narrative, Alice slips in hints that she actually subtly distinguishes between herself as a wife and her true self:
I loved my husband out of affection and also out of habit, I loved him with my wife’s heart, and with my secret heart, my dream heart, I loved Andrew Imhof.
Alice is intensely practical about marriage; she knows that it is about two very different people coming together, and sometimes you just try to get by:
We are each of us pathetic in one way or another, and the trick is to marry a person whose patheticness you can tolerate. …Anyone who has been married, and especially anyone married for several decades, knows the union is a series of compromises.
The great controversy at the end of the book comes when Alice admits publicly that she thinks the war her husband started should end. Charlie, of course, feels that she has betrayed him. But she has enough clarity to know that they’ve both betrayed each other in small ways. She forgives him because she genuinely loves him, and yet the book closes with the reminder that “there must remain secrets that are mine alone.”
What makes the book so remarkable, to me, is that Alice is somehow able to be loyal to Charlie, to think well of him, to have compassion for him, to love him, and to also be loyal to herself. That is her definition of “wife.”
That is a great feat in marriage. I know that I tend to think dualistically in my own; I think that either Andrew is right or I am right. I don’t know how to live in tension—but that’s exactly what a marriage is, learning to live in tension.
Phew. What a way to start this series! I’m really looking forward to engaging in conversation with everyone, so please join in and check out my fellow contributors’ blogs!
During May we’re reading The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. If you’ve been dying to read this bestseller, now’s your chance!