American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (literary fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

An extremely well-written novel based on the life of Laura Bush. Alice Lindgren (the names have been changed to emphasize the fictional nature of the story) has been an inveterate reader since childhood (my kind of girl!). The story takes us from a relatively normal childhood to working as a librarian to meeting Charlie Blackwell (George W Bush) to becoming the First Lady and enduring the ensuing celebrity.

Each of the four sections in the book is based on a real life event in Laura’s life (accidentally killing a classmate in a terrible car accident; George drinking heavily and then becoming religious, etc.) but everything else is purely fictional. Sittenfeld’s aim is to explore what it is like to “lead a life in opposition to itself” based on the liberal tendencies of Laura Bush as compared with her ultra conservative leader-of-the-free-world husband. As far as I can tell, this liberality is deduced from Laura’s (non-elaborated) support for gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose (abortion) along with a smattering of donations to liberal style causes (soup kitchens, etc). (Spoiler alert) Sittenfeld went a step further (too far IMHO) by giving the fictional Alice a gay grandmother and an abortion. I guess the author felt Alice needed personal reasons to support those more liberal policy decisions — which is a shame as I like to feel that people can have political opinions that aren’t necessarily based on their own needs and experiences.

I found the story gripping — I had a paperback with small print (difficult for me to read) and I still couldn’t put it down, reading late into the night. Alice is a delightfully introspective character and her internal commentary and ponderings brought her life into full perspective for the readers. At the same time, I really dislike fictionalized history — regardless of the careful name changing and outright statements of FICTION FICTION FICTION, it is hard (impossible) to leave this book without a strong idea of what these people were like, despite the fact that the characterizations were a complete fabrication on the part of the author. While “Alice” comes off as a sympathetic and engaging character, “Charlie” comes off as a complete buffoon. I’m no George Bush fan, but this doesn’t really seem like a full and complete portrayal of a man!

Some sample quotes:
“This is our implicit agreement, that we can suggest or recommend but that we never force, never make ultimatums. It’s why we don’t resent each other.”

“I’ve thought often since Charlie became governor that it isn’t a surprise so many famous people seem mentally unstable. As their celebrity grows and they’re increasingly deferred to and accommodated, they can believe one of two things: either that they’re deserving, in which case they will become unreasonable and insufferable; or that they’re not deserving, in which case they will be wracked with doubt, plagued by a sense of themselves as imposters.”

“I had the fleeting thought then that we are each of us pathetic in one way or another, and the trick is to marry a person whose patheticness you can tolerate”

“He 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 really a bending sort of accomadation to his ways, if what he saw when he looked at me was the reflection of his own will and personality.”

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine Books through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Feb 12, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

The fictionalized history of the creation of The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of Maud Baum, daughter of early suffragette Mathilda Gage and wife of L. Frank Baum, Oz’s creator. Alternating between her personal history from 1871 (10 years old) through 1899 (38 years old) and the 1938-39 Hollywood film production, the pages unravel the secret origins of Oz and the personal world Baum embedded in the story. As the narrative unspools, the characters are brought to life: Frank is the consummate storyteller and imagineer, firmly embedded in thoughts of the future while weaving fantastical stories from everything around him. Maud is his balance — “To see the ordinary, to avoid being bedazzled by spectacle — this was her gift.” She remained a shopkeeper’s daughter, “firmly anchored in the palpable things of this earth — things that could be observed and touched, measured and weighed.”

The scenes are abundantly filled with period details such as peptonizing milk for a baby’s consumption, prescriptions of “Bayer heroin” for coughs, patent medicines, and early air conditioning technology brought to Hollywood — “a heater for the cool.” We follow Frank and Maud as they move from upstate New York to the Dakota territory, working in a variety of occupations from theater management (and acting, scriptwriting, scenic design, etc.), to the owners of Baum’s emporium, to the owner of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer newspaper, to superlative Salesman. Frank was an early marketeer — blending story and spectacle with product to entrance consumers into buying something they never knew they wanted.

The 1938-39 narrative focuses on an older, widowed, Maud, fighting M-G-M to ensure the movie would stay true to Frank’s version. Maud wants to protect the story and what it represents to the millions who have been brought into the Magic of Oz — the longing for something better and the “dream of the rainbow” that keeps people going when times are hard (as they were for most people back then).

I’m not a fan of fictionalized history in general — it feels unfair to me to impart imagined thoughts, motivations, and dialog to real (but dead) people who can no longer set the record straight. However, I get easily caught up in a good story, and Elizabeth Letts has done an excellent job of generating one, starting from a variety of primary and secondary sources and filling in with period detail, imagined internal lives, and a well-defined narrative arc.