I read this novel with utmost surprise on two counts. I had expected a sharp political satire and instead found an almost forensic examination of a woman’s psyche and a patient and earnest character study. Secondly as a solicitor I wondered how on earth in this litigious age the author managed to get what is a barely disguised portrait of Laura Bush past her publisher’s legal department. Embellished with lost love, abortion, blackmail and a lesbian grandmother, the novel is daring, unashamedly commercial and potentially a legal minefield.
The first lady is cast as Alice Lindgren Blackwell who is a gentle, only child, born in the 1940s to impassive parents in a small Wisconsin town. The story describes Alice’s unlikely journey from small town ingénue to marrying rich alcoholic wastrel Charlie Blackwell who astounds everyone by becoming President of the United States.
The crux of the narrative comes before Alice’s country club marriage. She is haunted by the memory of Andrew Imhof a handsome boy she loved at the age of 17 but accidentally killed in a head on collision. An unhealthy relationship with the dead boy’s brother leads to pregnancy and an illegal abortion. Dr Wycombe, an eminent female surgeon with whom Alice’s Granny is having an affair performed the abortion-skeletons the wife of a Republican President cannot afford to have in her closet. Some 40 years later this feminist surgeon attempts to blackmail Alice.
More than a decade after Andrew’s death Alice dutiful, serious and thoughtful, now a school librarian and registered Democrat startlingly falls for and marries boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican Party.
As Alice navigates her way through the strange rituals of the Blackwell’s country club and summer estate she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune and when Charlie eventually becomes President she is thrust into a position she did not seek-one of power and advantage, duty and leadership.
Alice must now face contradictions. How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona? How can she be a free thinker and yet an obedient wife and first lady? Indeed how did Charlie a middle aged frat-boy end up as president ? But Alice supports her husband throughout his calamitous policies, with her face lift and Ferragamo shoes she becomes the embodiment of benign tolerance, burying her moral scruples with justifications of her conflicted state. As she says “I lead a life in opposition to itself.”
The novel is wonderfully written and succeeds in allowing the reader to continue to have affection for Alice even when her martyrish tendencies become frustrating and despite Alice being able to deceive herself about Charlie and being painfully aware that she often does so to maintain the status quo.
Above all Sittenfeld’s characters bring home the importance of accepting personal responsibility. While Charlie absolves himself as “an instrument of God’s will”, Alice reminds us that it is not so simple. “All I did was marry him….You are the ones who gave him power.”