first line friday

In 1954, the summer before I entered third grade, my grandmother mistook Andrew Imhof for a girl. I’d accompanied my grandmother to the grocery store—that morning, while reading a novel that mentioned hearts of palm, she’d been seized by a desire to have some herself and had taken me along on the walk to town—and it was in the canned-goods section that we encountered Andrew, who was with his mother. Not being of the same generation, Andrew’s mother and my grandmother weren’t friends, but they knew each other the way people in Riley, Wisconsin, did. Andrew’s mother was the one who approached us, setting her hand against her chest and saying to my grandmother, “Mrs. Lindgren, it’s Florence Imhof. How are you?”

Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife, 2008

When I heard that American Wife, which tells the story of Alice Blackwell, wife of the President of the United States, was a fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush, I was keen to read the novel: not because I have ever been particularly interested in Laura Bush, but because I was interested in why a young liberal novelist like Sittenfeld was interested. I had read both Sittenfeld’s previous novels, Prep and Man of My Dreams, and enjoyed them – Prep in particular. Teen romance is one thing, but political biography? And Laura Bush? Was this going too far?

In explaining her decision to write American Wife, Sittenfeld said in Q&A with Time magazine:

Soon after George W. Bush was elected I read a few articles about Laura Bush that made her seem different from what I would have expected. I learned that she’s a big reader, and that she would invite people who had political opinions different from her husband’s to events at the governor’s mansion and then events at the White House. And then I read a biography of her in 2004 by Ann Gerhart called The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush. That reinforced the sense I had that she had led a really complex and interesting life.

If Sittenfeld’s novel is anything to go by, Laura Bush’s life has been complex, interesting and even tragic in parts: for example, the former First Lady was responsible for the death of a class mate when she was seventeen. This human interest angle and Sittenfeld’s polished prose together make the book a fascinating and satisfying read.

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