Book Simple: Chelsea Clinton and THE AMERICAN WIFE
a life in books by Amy Brown
Watching the recent hullabaloo surrounding the wedding of Chelsea Clinton, it occurred to me that I had not yet read Curtis Sittenfeld’s novelization of the life of another political bride, American Wife. I’d been looking forward to the book for ages; on a cross-country flight I’d wept openly over a friend’s copy of Prep, Sittenfeld’s first novel set in a flossy prep school in Massachusetts. Sittenfeld’s voice made the travails of a homesick Midwestern girl come alive for me so completely that I felt transported back in time, to that raw hopeless loneliness of adolescence, a reading experience as unexpected as it was visceral.
The American Wife in question is Alice Blackwell, a former librarian married to the leader of the free world, into whose insomniac musings the reader abruptly steps. The first lady narrates her personal history with an emphasis on her serious reservations about the politics surrounds her life: “As with so much else,” she notes, “I tell myself it is our positions that are being deferred to, that we are simply symbols; who we are as individuals hardly matters. It would embarrass me otherwise to think of all the expense and effort put forth on our behalf. If not us, I repeat to myself, then others would play this same role.”
Self-effacing, observant and above all kind, Alice Lindgren grew up in a household with loving parents and a wild, charming grandmother. “Without anyone in my immediate family saying so, I came to understand that my mother had chosen us” over her harried and poor relations, “and the fact that she’d been able to choose made her lucky.” Alice is shocked by the “crudeness and volume” of other families; when you could choose neatness, quiet and comfort, why would you not?
Alice’s grandmother is “the reason [Alice] was a reader,” which Alice realizes later in her life gave her “the gifts of curiosity and sympathy, an awareness of the world as an odd and vibrant and contradictory place, and it had made [her] unafraid of its oddness and vibrancy and contradictions.” And it is her grandmother’s enthusiasm for the suitor that Alice brings home, Charlie Blackwell, the governor’s son, that convinces Alice to throw in her fate with him. “And would I have married Charlie if not for my grandmother?” asks Alice. “Surely not, less because of her high opinion of him on their first meeting than because of the qualities they shared, the traits I valued in him because I’d valued them first in her: mischief and humor and irreverence, an implied intelligence rather than an asserted one.”
Charlie Blackwell is a man desperate for validation, and he finds his salvation in Alice. “If Charlie Blackwell was really a spoiled lightweight, Alice Lindgren would not have been marrying him; we both needed to believe it.” Alice’s consuming passion for Charlie allows her to disregard first his wealthy, “smug and ribald” family’s callous entitlement, then her own passionate dislike of his political ambitions. “Putting aside the question of whether I agreed with his political platform,” Alice despises his political speeches, with “their repetition and their wheedling undertone and their righteous scorn and the phony clarity—they were so false and silly exactly as they pretended to be honest and important.”
But Alice files away her distress at the shortcomings of her husband (and later her daughter’s) perception. “What I dislike most about the political conversation,” Alice notes, “is its pretense that a correct answer exists for anything, that it’s not all murkiness and subjectivity.” How could I possibly have an opinion about these matters, Alice seemingly asks, patient to the point of saintliness. Her cloak of passivity permits the goons surrounding her to take control and largely make choices for her, and by extension for all of us. I was unprepared for how irritating I found her during much of the narrative. I wanted to reach into the book and shake her awake, which to be fair, is rather the way I feel about her real-life counterpart. But it is worth the struggle to watch her argument unfold. If more people resembled Alice Lindgren, the world would certainly be a wiser, gentler place. Or perhaps it would be the opposite.
I very much hope that Chelsea Clinton’s marriage will be a happier and freer one than Alice Blackwell’s. She is another young woman thrust into the political spotlight without having chosen it, but her course seems to involve much less equivocating. Best wishes to you and your husband, Chelsea. May the spotlight not spoil your celebration.
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