Cover image for American Wife
Title:
American Wife

A Novel
Author:
Sittenfeld, Curtis
Subject:
Fiction
Literature
Romance
Description:
On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband's presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House--and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, "almost in opposition to itself." A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie. As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek--one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie's tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona? In Alice Blackwell, New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has created her most dynamic and complex heroine yet. American Wife is a gorgeously written novel that weaves class, wealth, race, and the exigencies of fate into a brilliant tapestry--a novel in which the unexpected becomes inevitable, and the pleasures and pain of intimacy and love are laid bare.BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland. Praise for American Wife "Curtis Sittenfeld is an amazing writer, and American Wife is a brave and moving novel about the intersection of private and public life in America. Ambitious and humble at the same time, Sittenfeld refuses to trivialize or simplify people, whether real or imagined." --Richard Russo "What a remarkable (and brave) thing: a compassionate, illuminating, and beautifully rendered portrait of a fictional Republican first lady with a life and husband very much like our actual Republican first lady's. Curtis Sittenfeld has written a novel as impressive as it is improbable." --Kurt Andersen
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group

Random House
Date:
2008/09/02
Digital Format:
Adobe EPUB

HTML

Kindle
Language:
English

Summary

Summary

On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband's presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House-and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, "almost in opposition to itself."

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie.

As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek-one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie's tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?

In Alice Blackwell, New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has created her most dynamic and complex heroine yet. American Wife is a gorgeously written novel that weaves class, wealth, race, and the exigencies of fate into a brilliant tapestry-a novel in which the unexpected becomes inevitable, and the pleasures and pain of intimacy and love are laid bare.

BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland.


Praise for American Wife

"Curtis Sittenfeld is an amazing writer, and American Wife is a brave and moving novel about the intersection of private and public life in America. Ambitious and humble at the same time, Sittenfeld refuses to trivialize or simplify people, whether real or imagined."
-Richard Russo

"What a remarkable (and brave) thing: a compassionate, illuminating, and beautifully rendered portrait of a fictional Republican first lady with a life and husband very much like our actual Republican first lady's. Curtis Sittenfeld has written a novel as impressive as it is improbable."
-Kurt Andersen


Author Notes

Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld was born August 23, 1975 in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is an American writer. Her titles include: Prep, the tale of a Massachusetts prep school; The Man of My Dreams, a coming-of-age novel and an examination of romantic love; and American Wife, a fictional story loosely based on the life of First Lady Laura Bush.

Sittenfeld attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, before transferring to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. At Stanford, she studied Creative Writing. At the time, she was also chosen as one of Glamour magazine's College Women of the Year. She earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. In 2018 she made the bestseller list with her title, You Think It, I'll Say It.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Sittenfeld tracks, in her uneven third novel, the life of bookish, naïve Alice Lindgren and the trajectory that lands her in the White House as first lady. Charlie Blackwell, her boyishly charming rake of a husband, whose background of Ivy League privilege, penchant for booze and partying, contempt for the news and habit of making flubs when speaking off the cuff, bears more than a passing resemblance to the current president (though the Blackwells hail from Wisconsin, not Texas). Sittenfeld shines early in her portrayal of Alice's coming-of-age in Riley, Wis., living with her parents and her mildly eccentric grandmother. A car accident in her teens results in the death of her first crush, which haunts Alice even as she later falls for Charlie and becomes overwhelmed by his family's private summer compound and exclusive country club membership. Once the author leaves the realm of pure fiction, however, and has the first couple deal with his being ostracized as a president who favors an increasingly unpopular war, the book quickly loses its panache and sputters to a weak conclusion that doesn't live up to the fine storytelling that precedes it. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In her bold third novel, the author of the best-selling Prep (2005) presents a fictional portrait of First Lady Laura Bush, although she changes some important details. In a memoir told entirely in the first person, Alice Blackwell relays her unlikely ascent to the White House from her humble Wisconsin beginnings. She conveys in convincing, thoroughly riveting detail a life far more complicated than it appears on the surface the moment she discovered that her beloved grandmother was a lesbian; a tragic, life-changing car accident she had as a teenager; the friendship she willingly sacrificed with her best friend when she started dating the good-humored, athletic Charlie Blackwell; and her uncomfortable initiation into the tight-knit, immensely wealthy Blackwell family, run with unflappable authority by its formidable matriarch. No one is more surprised than Alice when her hard-drinking, sports-team-owning husband morphs into a born-again Christian with political ambitions. Suddenly, Alice's life is no longer her own as her every move is parsed for its political implications. Sittenfeld is sure to come under fire for presuming to so methodically blur the lines between fiction and reality and for timing her novel's publication to an election year for maximum publicity. Yet what she does here, in prose as winning as it is confident, is to craft out of the first-person narration a compelling, very human voice, one full of kindness and decency. And, as if making the Bush-like couple entirely sympathetic is not enough of a feat in itself, she also provides many rich insights into the emotional ebb and flow of a long-term marriage.--Wilkinson, Joanne Copyright 2008 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

Is there a distinctly American experience? "The American," by Henry James; "An American Tragedy," by Theodore Dreiser; "The Quiet American," by Graham Greene; "The Ugly American," by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick; Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" and Bret Easton Ellis's "American Psycho" - each suggests, in its very title, a mythic dimension in which fictitious characters are intended to represent national types or predilections. Our greatest 19th-century prose writers from Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville through Henry James and Mark Twain took it for granted that "American" is an identity fraught with ambiguity, as in those allegorical parables by Hawthorne in which "good" and "evil" are mysteriously conjoined; to be an "American" is to be a kind of pilgrim, an archetypal seeker after truth. Though destined to be thwarted, even defeated, the pilgrim is our deepest and purest American self. The young heroines of Curtis Sittenfeld's previous novels "Prep" and "The Man of My Dreams," like the more mature protagonist of Sittenfeld's third and most ambitious novel, "American Wife," are sister-variants of the American outsider, the excluded, disadvantaged, often envious and obsessive observer of others' seemingly privileged lives. Much acclaimed at the time of its publication in 2005, the tersely titled "Prep" is not a brilliantly corrosive adolescent cri de coeur like J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," still less a powerful indictment of conformist American racist society like Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," but an unassuming coming-of-age memoirist fiction tracing the adventures and misadventures of a Midwestern girl, Lee Fiora, whose good fortune - unless it's her misfortune - is to be a scholarship student at a prestigious New England prep school called Ault. By her own definition a girl of no more than average intelligence, looks and personality, Lee is yet a sharp-eyed observer of the WASP prep-school milieu, and of her own chronically forlorn presence there; unlike her prep-school predecessor Holden Caulfield, Lee is not a rebel, but one who unabashedly envies, admires and wishes to adulate her more glamorous classmates. If Lee Fiora is a 21st-century American-girl pilgrim of sorts, her quest isn't for a searing and illuminating truth but a girl's wish to be "popular" with her peers and to be noticed - to be kissed - by the boy of her dreams, Cross Sugarman: "I was, of course, obsessed with kissing; I thought of kissing instead of thinking of Spanish verbs, instead of reading the newspaper or writing letters to my parents. ... But ... kissing terrified me, as an actual thing you did with another person, and there was no one it would be more humiliating to kiss badly than Cross." "Prep" is perhaps most notable for its refusal to make of its protagonist a figure in any way "heroic" - her angst is petty, small-minded, but utterly convincing. The "American wife" of Sittenfeld's new novel, conspicuously modeled after the life of Laura Bush as recorded in Ann Gerhart's biography "The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush" (2004), is a fictitious first lady named Alice Blackwell, née Lindgren, a Wisconsin-born former grade school teacher and librarian who comes belatedly to realize, in middle age, at the height of the Iraq war that her aggressively militant president-husband has initiated and stubbornly continues to defend, that she has compromised her youthful liberal ideals: "I lead a life in opposition to itself." As a portraitist in prose, Sittenfeld never deviates from sympathetic respect for her high-profile subject: she is not Francis Bacon but rather more Norman Rockwell. Nearness to the White House and the egomaniacal possibilities of presidential power have not inspired this novelist to wild flights of surreal satire as in the brilliantly executed Nixon-inspired fictions of a bygone era, Philip Roth's "Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends)" (1971) and Robert Coover's "Public Burning" (1977). There are no stylistic innovations in "American Wife" and very little that is political or even historical. Sittenfeld's prose here is straightforward and unobtrusive, lacking even the wry asides of the girl-narrators of "Prep" and "The Man of My Dreams," whose powers of observation are sharpened by their chronic low-grade depression; Alice is never other than "good" - "selfless" - stricken by conscience as she looks back upon the life that has become mysterious and problematic to her, like a life lived by someone not herself: "Was I mutable, without a fixed identity? I could see the arguments for every side, for and against people like the Blackwells" (her husband Charlie's wealthy, politically influential family). "Charlie ... had told me I had a strong sense of myself, but I wondered then if the opposite was true - if what he took for strength was a bending sort of accommodation to his ways." For much of its considerable length, "American Wife" seems to be, on the whole, a faithful dramatization of the life of the "perfect wife" portrayed in Gerhart's well-written and "balanced" biography: Alice Lindgren is intelligent, thoughtful, inclined to be reserved and slightly prudish, a lover of books and libraries, conventional in her devout middle-class Christian upbringing - "Good manners meant accommodating the person you were with" - who, as a girl of 17, accidentally causes the death of a high school classmate, a boy to whom she is romantically attracted, by running a stop sign at a darkened rural intersection and crashing into his car. Alice, like her real-life model Laura Bush, who had a similar accident as a girl of 17 in 1963 in her hometown, Midland, Tex., is not charged with any infraction of the law; but the death of this classmate reverberates through the novel, like a subterranean stream of repressed passion, an abiding guilt and an inconsolable sorrow: "Andrew died, I caused his death, and then, like a lover, I took him inside me." (Questioned about this incident by journalists, Alice Blackwell repeats verbatim the carefully chosen words in which Laura Bush replies when confronted with similar questions.) "American Wife" is a romance in which the dead, lost lover prevails over the living husband, no matter that the living husband is president of the United States, as, at the novel's end, the 61-year-old Alice concedes that, for all that she has been the "perfect" wife to Charlie Blackwell, it has always been the dead Andrew whom she has loved, in secret: "That dewy certainty I felt for Andrew, the lightness of our lives then - it is long gone. I have never experienced it with anyone else." An idealistic grammar-school librarian of 31 when she is introduced to Charlie Blackwell and finds herself vigorously courted by him - as, she will later learn, "marriage material for a rising star of the Republican Party" - Alice is initially overwhelmed by the crude, bullying, overbearing wealthy Blackwell clan into which it seems to be her destiny to marry: "It came to me so naturally, such a casual reaction - I hate it here," Alice thinks miserably as a houseguest at her fiance's family's summer home in northern Wisconsin, a kind of nightmare boot camp where outsiders like Alice are initiated into the Blackwells' tight-knit, fiercely loyal way of life. The mystery of Alice's life - as it is the prevailing mystery of Laura Bush's life, seen from the outside - is the wife's seemingly unquestioned allegiance to a husband with values very different from her own, if not in mockery of her own. From the start, though attracted to Charlie Blackwell as a genial, charming presence, Alice also recognizes him as "churlish," a "spoiled lightweight," "undeniably handsome, but ... cocky in a way I didn't like," shallow, egotistical, "some sort of dimwit," an "aspiring politician from a smug and ribald family, ... a man who basically ... did not hold a job" and who will demand of her an unswerving devotion to his efforts: "Alice, loyalty is everything to my family. There's nothing more important. Someone insults a Blackwell, and that's it. ... I don't try to convince people. I cut them off." HERE in embryo is the right-wing Republican's chilling partisan-political strategy, which is repellant to Alice even as - seemingly helplessly, with a female sort of acquiescence in her fate - she acknowledges feeling a "sprawling, enormous happiness" with him that sweeps all rational doubts aside: Charlie "was all breeziness and good cheer; when I was talking to him, the world did not seem like such a complicated place." Yet more pointedly, as the first lady thinks well into the president's second term: Charlie "always reminds me ... of an actor going onstage, an insurance salesman or perhaps the owner of the hardware store who landed the starring role in the community-theater production of 'The Music Man.' Oh, how I want to protect him! Oh, the outlandishness of our lives, familiar now and routine, but still so deeply strange. 'I love you, too,' I say." Though "American Wife" is respectful of the first lady, its portrait of the president is rather more mixed, cartoonish: chilling, too, in its combination of steely indifference to opposing political viewpoints and crude frat-boy humor: "'See, that's what makes America great - room for all kinds of opposing viewpoints,'" Charlie says to Alice. She continues: "I can tell Charlie's grinning, then I hear an unmistakable noise, a bubbly blurt of sound, and I know he's just broken wind. Though I've told him it's inconsiderate, I think he does it as much as possible in front of his agents. He'll say, 'They think it's hilarious when the leader of the free world toots his own horn!'" Curtis Sittenfeld surely did not intend to create, in this mostly amiable, entertaining novel, anything so ambitious - or so presumptuous - as a political/cultural allegory in the 19th-century mode, yet "American Wife" might be deconstructed as a parable of America in the years of the second Bush presidency: the "American wife" is in fact the American people, or at least those millions of Americans who voted for a less-than-qualified president in two elections - the all-forgiving enabler for whom the bromide "love" excuses all. Criticized for abjuring responsibility for her husband's destructive political policies, Alice reacts defensively: "The single most astonishing fact of political life to me has been the gullibility of the American people. Even in our cynical age, the percentage of the population who is told something and therefore believes it to be true - it's staggering." And, more provocatively: What "caught me by surprise was how the American people and the American media egged him on, how complicit they were in Charlie's cultivation of a war-president persona." Her challenge to the American public: "All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power." "American Wife" is most engaging in its early chapters, when Alice Lindgren isn't yet Alice Blackwell but an insecure young woman, haunted by the memory of the beautiful boy she'd accidentally killed as a girl yet dedicated to teaching and to a life defined by books. After she meets Charlie Blackwell and becomes his helpmeet, her independence swallowed up in his ambition, Alice seems to lose definition and, especially in the novel's final, weakest section, titled "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," to become a generic figure of celebrity proffering bromides to an adulatory public - "Gradually your fame settles on you, it's like a new coat or a new car that you become used to" and irritably defending herself against the prying media - "I don't ooze sincerity. I am sincere." At the novel's end, Sittenfeld breaks from the Laura Bush biographies to imagine for her first lady a belated gesture of rebellion regarding the Iraq war that yields but a muted air of conviction. IF there is an American gothic tale secreted within "American Wife," it's one of unconscionable, even criminal behavior cloaked in the reassuring tones of the domestic; political tragedy reduced to the terms of situation comedy, in this way nullified, erased. How to take Charlie Blackwell seriously as a purveyor of evil? We can't, not as we see him through his wife's indulgent eyes smiling "as he does when he's broken wind particularly loudly, as if he's half sheepish and half pleased with himself." The ideal American wife can only retreat into a kind of female solace of opacity: "For now I will say nothing; amid the glaring exposure, there must remain secrets that are mine alone." 'American Wife' is a romance in which the lost lover prevails over the living husband - the president. Joyce Carol Oates is the author, most recently, of the novel "My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike" and the story collection "Wild Nights!"


Guardian Review

All viewers of The West Wing know that the back-stairs acronym for the leader of the free world is Potus but the narrator of this remarkable novel identifies herself to us as Flotus: First Lady of the United States. She's Alice Blackwell, born Lindgren, but, as writer Curtis Sittenfeld acknowledges even before the title page, she is "inspired by the life of an American first lady". Like Laura Bush, Alice, as a teenager, is driving a car which is involved in an accident that kills a male classmate. Trapped in a self-image of guilt-ridden tragedy, she is distracted by boorish Charlie Blackwell, who bowls through his life on blow-job jokes and too much booze, making him an embarrassment to his family, who are grandees of the Republican party. Alice's wisdom and loyalty eventually get him off the bottle and to the top of American politics. As Charlie goofs around the White House, joking about the impending merger between General Electric and Alitalia - "They're going to call the company Genitalia!" - the reader sees and hears George W Bush. Charlie too is elected by a Supreme Court decision. Yet, in other respects, this topical simulacram diverges from the biographical model: Princeton rather than Yale, money from meat rather than oil, a father who was a state governor rather than a former president. This combination of the looked-up and the made-up within a single narrative is a recurrent controversy of this genre of faction. Because Charlie and Alice so often exactly reflect Dubya and Laura, a tension develops when a certain detail - an abortion - is not immediately recognisable or verifiable. In a novel that will inevitably be read as a biography, there is a risk of fictional invention polluting the historical record. Such qualms, though, are reduced by the fact that this is such an accomplished work of fiction. Becoming far more than a Bush administration equivalent to Joe Klein's Clinton-inspired Primary Colors , this is a thoughtful and compelling examination of the mechanics of family and marriage. Numerous scenes - a family car outing, the body language of a failing marriage, the decline of an elderly relative - display a shrewd universality. A reader allergic to news could enjoy it as pure fiction. Sittenfeld's most impressive achievement is to imagine convincingly what it might be like for your private life to become public property. Suffering feelings of worthlessness not restricted to the automobile slaughter of her boyfriend, the narrator, purely through an accident of marriage, becomes the subject of lavish White House galas titled "Students and Teachers Salute Alice Blackwell!" And a once a simple morning ritual - reading the morning newspaper - becomes for Alice, in the White House, a strategic exercise in trying to reach the arts section without reading the many pieces denigrating her husband, yet taking in enough to answer, in "a neutral tone", his bullish inquiry: "How'd I mess up the world today?" While Charlie conjures up the chimpish grin of GWB, Alice is a much more subtle creation, defying the laws of narrative physics by being Laura Bush and somehow not being her. The novel turns on an act of betrayal which, though unlikely to be precisely mirrored in the present administration, is a psychologically satisfying dramatisation of how trauma from the past might shape future actions. It also encourages us to reflect on what it might be like to find that the person you loved has become the most unpopular and untrusted man in the world. Knowing and knowledgeable, yet also inventive and original, American Wife is, in an election year of unprecedented drama, a thrilling combination of history and surprises. Mark Lawson's Enough is Enough: Or the Emergency Government is published by Picador. To order American Wife for pounds 10.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875. Caption: article-firstlady.1 [Curtis Sittenfeld]'s most impressive achievement is to imagine convincingly what it might be like for your private life to become public property. Suffering feelings of worthlessness not restricted to the automobile slaughter of her boyfriend, the narrator, purely through an accident of marriage, becomes the subject of lavish White House galas titled "Students and Teachers Salute [Alice Blackwell]!" And a once a simple morning ritual - reading the morning newspaper - becomes for Alice, in the White House, a strategic exercise in trying to reach the arts section without reading the many pieces denigrating her husband, yet taking in enough to answer, in "a neutral tone", his bullish inquiry: "How'd I mess up the world today?" While [Charlie Blackwell] conjures up the chimpish grin of GWB, Alice is a much more subtle creation, defying the laws of narrative physics by being [Laura Bush] and somehow not being her. The novel turns on an act of betrayal which, though unlikely to be precisely mirrored in the present administration, is a psychologically satisfying dramatisation of how trauma from the past might shape future actions. - Mark Lawson.


Kirkus Review

An elementary-school librarian marries the least promising son of an old-moneyed, intensely competitive Republican family and sticks by him as he rises from hard-drinking fool to unpopular U.S. President in this roman à clef from Sittenfeld (The Man of My Dreams, 2006, etc.). In the involving, richly imagined first section of the book, set in Wisconsin rather than Texas, narrator Alice spends a charmed middle-class girlhood with loving parents and a devoted grandmother, an iconoclast who introduces Alice to the joys of literature, among other things. Then, as a teen, virginal Alice runs a stop sign, hits another car and causes the death of the very boy she was on her way to meet at a party. In confused grief she sleeps with his older brother and has an abortion. There is a lot of melodrama, but Sittenfeld's understated style works well to bring home Alice's loss of innocence. Unfortunately, once Charlie Blackwell comes on the scene to tie Alice awkwardly to semi-accurate facts, the story becomes a plodding, predictable series of close encounters with the factual history of a family Americans already know well: Charlie's white-haired, overbearing mother and genuinely decent dad; Charlie's devotion to baseball and his stint as the owner of a baseball team; Charlie's hard drinking; Charlie's Christian conversion after Alice threatens to leave him; Charlie's limited mental faculties but soaring ambition; Charlie's Machiavellian handler who steers his political fortunes. Once Charlie rises to President and wages a war she questions, Alice faces a new (presumably fictional) crisis of conscience. While deciding whether to meet the protesting father of a dead soldier, Alice muses unconvincingly on the insularity of fame, the role of the media and her own responsibility for her husband's failed policies. What draws bookish Democrat Alice to Charlie--and what keeps her his barely questioning helpmate--is how cute he is, despite those squinty eyes, along with his dependence and adoration. This fictional first lady is a wimp and her husband a lightweight. So what's new? Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

Another hit for Sittenfeld after Prep and The Man of My Dreams? Here, unassuming Alice Blackwell goes from small-town girl to First Lady. With a ten-city tour. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

PART I 1272 Amity Lane   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?" Andrew and I had been classmates for as long as we'd been going to school, but we merely eyed each other without speaking. We both were eight. As the adults chatted, he picked up a can of peas and held it by securing it between his flat palm and his chin, and I wondered if he was showing off. This was when my grandmother shoved me a little. "Alice, say hello to Mrs. Imhof." As I'd been taught, I extended my hand. "And isn't your daughter darling," my grandmother continued, gesturing toward Andrew, "but I don't believe I know her name." A silence ensued during which I'm pretty sure Mrs. Imhof was deciding how to correct my grandmother. At last, touching her son's shoulder, Mrs. Imhof said, "This is Andrew. He and Alice are in the same class over at the school." My grandmother squinted. "Andrew, did you say?" She even turned her head, angling her ear as if she were hard of hearing, though I knew she wasn't. She seemed to willfully refuse the pardon Mrs. Imhof had offered, and I wanted to tap my grandmother's arm, to tug her over so her face was next to mine and say, "Granny, he's a boy!" It had never occurred to me that Andrew looked like a girl--little about Andrew Imhof had occurred to me at that time in my life--but it was true that he had unusually long eyelashes framing hazel eyes, as well as light brown hair that had gotten a bit shaggy over the summer. However, his hair was long only for that time and for a boy; it was still far shorter than mine, and there was nothing feminine about the chinos or red-and-white-checked shirt he wore. "Andrew is the younger of our two sons," Mrs. Imhof said, and her voice contained a new briskness, the first hint of irritation. "His older brother is Pete." "Is that right?" My grandmother finally appeared to grasp the situation, but grasping it did not seem to have made her repentant. She leaned forward and nodded at Andrew--he still was holding the peas--and said, "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance. You be sure my granddaughter behaves herself at school. You can report back to me if she doesn't." Andrew had said nothing thus far--it was not clear he'd been paying enough attention to the conversation to understand that his gender was in dispute--but at this he beamed: a closed-mouth but enormous smile, one that I felt implied, erroneously, that I was some sort of mischief-maker and he would indeed be keeping his eye on me. My grandmother, who harbored a lifelong admiration for mischief, smiled back at him like a conspirator. After she and Mrs. Imhof said goodbye to each other (our search for hearts of palm had, to my grandmother's disappointment if not her surprise, proved unsuccessful), we turned in the opposite direction from them. I took my grandmother's hand and whispered to her in what I hoped was a chastening tone, "Granny." Not in a whisper at all, my grandmother said, "You don't think that child looks like a girl? He's downright pretty!" "Shhh!" "Well, it's not his fault, but I can't believe I'm the first one to make that mistake. His eyelashes are an inch long." As if to verify her claim, we both turned around. By then we were thirty feet from the Imhofs, and Mrs. Imhof had her back to us, leaning toward a shelf. But Andrew was facing my grandmother and me. He still was smiling slightly, and when my eyes met his, he lifted his eyebrows twice. "He's flirting with you!" my grandmother exclaimed. "What does 'flirting' mean?" She laughed. "It's when a person likes you, so they try to catch your attention." Andrew Imhof liked me? Surely, if the information had been delivered by an adult--and not just any adult but my wily grandmother--it had to be true. Andrew liking me seemed neither thrilling nor appalling; mostly, it just seemed unexpected. And then, having considered the idea, I dismissed it. My grandmother knew about some things, but not the social lives of eight-year-olds. After all, she hadn't even recognized Andrew as a boy. In the house I grew up in, we were four: my grandmother, my parents, and me. On my father's side, I was a third-generation only child, which was greatly unusual in those days. While I certainly would have liked a sibling, I knew from an early age not to mention it--my mother had miscarried twice by the time I was in first grade, and those were just the pregnancies I knew about, the latter occurring when she was five months along. Though the miscarriages weighted my parents with a quiet sadness, our family as it was seemed evenly balanced. At dinner, we each sat on one side of the rectangular table in the dining room; heading up the sidewalk to church, we could walk in pairs; in the summer, we could split a box of Yummi-Freez ice-cream bars; and we could play euchre or bridge, both of which they taught me when I was ten and which we often enjoyed on Friday and Saturday nights. Although my grandmother possessed a rowdy streak, my parents were exceedingly considerate and deferential to each other, and for years I believed this mode to be the norm among families and saw all other dynamics as an aberration. My best friend from early girlhood was Dena Janaszewski, who lived across the street, and I was constantly shocked by what I perceived to be Dena's, and really all the Janaszewskis', crudeness and volume: They hollered to one another from between floors and out windows; they ate off one another's plates at will, and Dena and her two younger sisters constantly grabbed and poked at one another's braids and bottoms; they entered the bathroom when it was occupied; and more shocking than the fact that her father once said goddamn in my presence--his exact words, entering the kitchen, were "Who took my goddamn hedge clippers?"--was the fact that neither Dena, her mother, nor her sisters seemed to even notice. In my own family, life was calm. My mother and father occasionally disagreed--a few times a year he would set his mouth in a firm straight line, or the corners of her eyes would draw down with a kind of wounded disappointment--but it happened infrequently, and when it did, it seemed unnecessary to express aloud. Merely sensing discord, whether in the role of inflictor or recipient, pained them enough. My father had two mottoes, the first of which was "Fools' names and fools' faces often appear in public places." The second was "Whatever you are, be a good one." I never knew the source of the first motto, but the second came from Abraham Lincoln. By profession, my father worked as the branch manager of a bank, but his great passion--his hobby, I suppose you'd say, which seems to be a thing not many people have anymore unless you count searching the Internet or talking on cell phones--was bridges. He especially admired the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge and once told me that during its construction, the contractor had arranged, at great expense, for an enormous safety net to run beneath it. "That's called employer responsibility," my father said. "He wasn't just worried about profit." My father closely followed the building of both the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan--he called it the Mighty Mac--and later, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which, upon completion in 1964, would connect Brooklyn and Staten Island and be the largest suspension bridge in the world. My parents both had grown up in Milwaukee and met in 1943, when my mother was eighteen and working in a glove factory, and my father was twenty and working at a branch of Wisconsin State Bank & Trust. They struck up a conversation in a soda shop, and were engaged by the time my father enlisted in the army. After the war ended, they married and moved forty-five miles west to Riley, my father's mother in tow, so he could open a branch of the bank there. My mother never again held a job. As a housewife, she had a light touch--she did not seem overburdened or cranky, she didn't remind the rest of us how much she did--and yet she sewed many of her own and my clothes, kept the house meticulous, and always prepared our meals. The food we ate was acceptable more often than delicious; she favored pan-broiled steak, or noodle and cheese loafs, and she taught me her recipes in a low-key, literal way, never explaining why I needed to know them. Why wouldn't I need to know them? She was endlessly patient and a purveyor of small, sweet gestures: Without commenting, she'd leave pretty ribbons or peppermint candies on my bed or, on my bureau, a single flower in a three-inch vase. My mother was the second youngest of eight siblings, none of whom we saw frequently. She had five brothers and two sisters, and only one of her sisters, my Aunt Marie, who was married to a mechanic and had six children, had ever come to Riley. When my mother's parents were still alive, we'd drive to visit them in Milwaukee, but they died within ten days of each other when I was six, and after that we'd go years without seeing my aunts, uncles, and cousins. My impression was that their houses all were small and crowded, filled with the squabbling of children and the smell of sour milk, and the men were terse and the women were harried; in a way that was not cruel, none of them appeared to be particularly interested in us. We visited less and less the older I got, and my father's mother never went along, although she'd ask us to pick up schnecken from her favorite German bakery. In my childhood, there was a relieved feeling that came over me when we drove away from one of my aunt's or uncle's houses, a feeling I tried to suppress because I knew even then that it was unchristian. Without anyone in my immediate family saying so, I came to understand that my mother had chosen us; she had chosen our life together over one like her siblings', and the fact that she'd been able to choose made her lucky. Like my mother, my grandmother did not hold a job after the move to Riley, but she didn't really join in the upkeep of the house, either. In retrospect, I'm surprised that her unhelpfulness did not elicit resentment from my mother, but it truly seems that it didn't. I think my mother found her mother-in-law entertaining, and in a person who entertains us, there is much we forgive. Most afternoons, when I returned home from school, the two of them were in the kitchen, my mother paused between chores with an apron on or a dust rag over her shoulder, listening intently as my grandmother recounted a magazine article she'd just finished about, say, the mysterious murder of a mobster's girlfriend in Chicago. My grandmother never vacuumed or swept, and only rarely, if my parents weren't home or my mother was sick, would she cook, preparing dishes notable mostly for their lack of nutrition: An entire dinner could consist of fried cheese or half-raw pancakes. What my grandmother did do was read; this was the primary way she spent her time. It wasn't unusual for her to complete a book a day--she preferred novels, especially the Russian masters, but she also read histories, biographies, and pulpy mysteries--and for hours and hours every morning and afternoon, she sat either in the living room or on top of her bed (the bed would be made, and she would be fully dressed), turning pages and smoking Pall Malls. From early on, I understood that the household view of my grandmother, which is to say my parents' view, was not simply that she was both smart and frivolous but that her smartness and her frivolity were intertwined. That she could tell you all about the curse of the Hope Diamond, or about cannibalism in the Donner Party--it wasn't that she ought to be ashamed, exactly, to possess such knowledge, but there was no reason for her to be proud of it, either. The tidbits she relayed were interesting, but they had little to do with real life: paying a mortgage, scrubbing a pan, keeping warm in the biting cold of Wisconsin winters. I'm pretty sure that rather than resisting this less than flattering view of herself, my grandmother shared it. In another era, I imagine she'd have made an excellent book critic for a newspaper, or even an English professor, but she'd never attended college, and neither had my parents. My grandmother's husband, my father's father, had died early, and as a young widow, my grandmother had gone to work in a ladies' dress shop, waiting on Milwaukee matrons who, as she told it, had money but not taste. She'd held this job until the age of fifty--fifty was older then than it is now--at which point she'd moved to Riley with my newlywed parents. My grandmother borrowed the majority of the books she read from the library, but she bought some, too, and these she kept in her bedroom on a shelf so full that every ledge contained two rows; it reminded me of a girl in my class, Pauline Geisseler, whose adult teeth had grown in before her baby teeth fell out and who would sometimes, with a total lack of self-consciousness, open her mouth for us at recess. My grandmother almost never read aloud to me, but she regularly took me to the library--I read and reread the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and both the Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series--and my grandmother often summarized the grown-up books she'd read in tantalizing ways: A well-bred married woman falls in love with a man who is not her husband; after her husband learns of the betrayal, she has no choice but to throw herself in the path of an oncoming train . . . From the Hardcover edition. Excerpted from American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.