Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Dutiful Wife

I have just finished reading American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. It's a fictionalized and imaginary account of a woman's journey from teen in the Midwest to First Lady. People have stated that it's clearly based on Laura Bush but, I think, it's actually more accurate to state that her husband is based on George W. Bush. The reason being is that we know very little about Laura and so I'm not comfortable saying that Alice Lindgren is based on Laura Bush. Clearly there are things in common, but otherwise, the characteristics of Charlie, Alice's husband in the book, are much more strikingly like those of Dubya, including the privileged upbringing, the awkwardness, the general misbehaving followed by conversion to Born-Again Christian.

I thought it was an absolutely gripping read. It's rather long - over 550 pages, and so approaching Dickensian in length - but incredibly quick and easy to get through, with the bulk of my reading done on a plane ride back from England (although, to be fair, the movie choice on Continental wasn't up to much, and yet I managed to watch both Back to the Future and Pirates of the Caribbean -well, more accurately, they were on and noisy distractions while I read and did some work). It was lent to me by TOH's mum, and she had felt that the most interesting pages are the 150 or so after Alice becomes First Lady. But I was utterly intrigued by all of it - her adolescence, their courtship, his conversion, partly because it really did set the scene for her life as FLOTUS...

The most striking thing about the book, I feel, was Alice's ambiguity and, indeed, my ambiguous response to her. In part, I thought she was incredibly courageous and, frankly, sensible - she was able to separate the man she loved from his job. In some senses, she was right - how TOH is as an economist and teacher is, really, not much to do with me and doesn't, for the most part, affect my views on or feelings toward him. Yet I thought that this in some places really reflected a lack of conviction, or, perhaps, to be more charitable, a difference in the bases of our relationships.* Because it does matter that TOH does the best he can, and strives to make lives better, and is intelligent and committed to his job. At times it almost seemed wilful blindness for Alice to not quite understand the criticisms levelled at her regarding Charlie's politics.

Nonetheless, I'd then feel swayed by and, frankly, admiration at her integrity and successes at, for the most part, being able to maintain a relationship in the face of such differences and keeping his politics out of their personal lives. That was the bargain they struck and, for the most part, they stuck to it, which was a remarkable aspect of the book. Yet I think there's definitely a strong gender dynamic being played out here, in that the wife doesn't get involved in her man's business, at least not publicly, and that makes her a good wife. I think there's room to explore whether or not a male spouse would be so easily considered a good man and a good husband for being so willing to sit and be silent on the sidelines.

The success of their relationship in spite of their differences also struck me. TOH and I used to have virulent rows--usually on the way to the train station at Hither Green in the mornings--about the role of the NHS and poverty and various other things on which he as a hard-nosed economist (ha!) and me as a soft lefty-liberal (pinko) took radically opposed views. He was all reason, I was all unhinged emotion. We've come together a lot more over the years, as you'd expect, although we're still not exactly as one. Yet I think we've always had similar core values about what people are worth and what a just society might consist of. But I was intrigued by the book because I am fascinated by those relationships in which each person has unbelievably different viewpoints. I don't think I could cope with that, and not because I'm that prejudiced (I hope). More that you need to share values. I suppose I don't really understand how you can build a life together, particularly if it's one that involves raising children, with such fundamentally different views of what is truly important. The book raises that issue and is definitely food for thought.

* And yes, I am aware the book is not real.

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