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1 Hawthorne Literature- A to Z

American Wife (New York Times Notable Books)


American Wife (New York Times Notable Books) Cover

ISBN13: 9780812975406
ISBN10: 0812975405
Condition: Standard
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1272 Amity Lane  

In 1954, the summer before I entered third grade, my grandmother mistook Andrew Imhof for a girl. Id accompanied my grandmother to the grocery store—that morning, while reading a novel that mentioned hearts of palm, shed 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, Andrews mother and my grandmother werent friends, but they knew each other the way people in Riley, Wisconsin, did. Andrews mother was the one who approached us, setting her hand against her chest and saying to my grandmother, “Mrs. Lindgren, its Florence Imhof. How are you?”

Andrew and I had been classmates for as long as wed 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 Id been taught, I extended my hand. “And isnt your daughter darling,” my grandmother continued, gesturing toward Andrew, “but I dont believe I know her name.”

A silence ensued during which Im pretty sure Mrs. Imhof was deciding how to correct my grandmother. At last, touching her sons 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 wasnt. She seemed to willfully refuse the pardon Mrs. Imhof had offered, and I wanted to tap my grandmothers arm, to tug her over so her face was next to mine and say, “Granny, hes 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, “Its a pleasure to make your acquaintance. You be sure my granddaughter behaves herself at school. You can report back to me if she doesnt.”

Andrew had said nothing thus far—it was not clear hed 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 grandmothers disappointment if not her surprise, proved unsuccessful), we turned in the opposite direction from them. I took my grandmothers hand and whispered to her in what I hoped was a chastening tone, “Granny.”

Not in a whisper at all, my grandmother said, “You dont think that child looks like a girl? Hes downright pretty!”


“Well, its not his fault, but I cant believe Im 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.

“Hes flirting with you!” my grandmother exclaimed.

“What does ‘flirting mean?”

She laughed. “Its 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 hadnt even recognized Andrew as a boy.

In the house I grew up in, we were four: my grandmother, my parents, and me. On my fathers 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 Denas, and really all the Janaszewskis, crudeness and volume: They hollered to one another from between floors and out windows; they ate off one anothers plates at will, and Dena and her two younger sisters constantly grabbed and poked at one anothers 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 youd 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. “Thats called employer responsibility,” my father said. “He wasnt 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 fathers 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 didnt 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 wouldnt I need to know them? She was endlessly patient and a purveyor of small, sweet gestures: Without commenting, shed 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 mothers parents were still alive, wed drive to visit them in Milwaukee, but they died within ten days of each other when I was six, and after that wed 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 fathers mother never went along, although shed 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 aunts or uncles 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 shed been able to choose made her lucky.

Like my mother, my grandmother did not hold a job after the move to Riley, but she didnt really join in the upkeep of the house, either. In retrospect, Im surprised that her unhelpfulness did not elicit resentment from my mother, but it truly seems that it didnt. 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 shed just finished about, say, the mysterious murder of a mobsters girlfriend in Chicago.

My grandmother never vacuumed or swept, and only rarely, if my parents werent 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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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.

Im pretty sure that rather than resisting this less than flattering view of herself, my grandmother shared it. In another era, I imagine shed have made an excellent book critic for a newspaper, or even an English professor, but shed never attended college, and neither had my parents. My grandmothers husband, my fathers 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. Shed held this job until the age of fifty—fifty was older then than it is now—at which point shed 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 shed 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.

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Izmir girl, January 17, 2010 (view all comments by Izmir girl)
American Wife is a book that I think about again and again. The love story between the main character and her boyfriend/husband was very compelling.
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ldlombardo, January 3, 2010 (view all comments by ldlombardo)
This is the quintessential book of the decade. It is about a woman born in the 20th Century finding her way into the 21st Century. She is good, she is bad. She makes measured choices. She is not perfect, but she is perfectly interesting. "Faction" or fairy tale, this is a story that had me turning pages into the wee small hours of the morning. And don't even get me started on who she selected to be her lifetime partner. Boot-kickin' good!
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Elizabeth Lenaghan, November 23, 2009 (view all comments by Elizabeth Lenaghan)
When I was first told of the conceit of this book, I had no desire to read it. However, after seeing a few positive reviews and being compelled by Elizabeth Banks' performance of Laura Bush in Oliver Stone's W., I changed my mind (it should also be noted that I've read all of Sittenfeld's novels, which says something about how compulsively readable her books are, though I wouldn't have rated any of them higher than this). As far as the plot goes, I think this is the most sophisticated and intricate of Sittenfeld's efforts. Alice Blackwell is a fully realized character, in the best sense of the term. In fact, she becomes so real that you are either compelled to forgive Laura Bush for any/all complicity she had in the disaster of her husband's administration, or just forget the Bush White House was the inspiration for this novel altogether. (I actually found the latter more palatable in many parts of the novel, particularly those that allude to the President's sex life, but even those that revisit his social and war policies). Either way, the story provides enough "behind the scenes" gossip to fill its 500+ pages, and I found it a perfect companion for my solo-research trip (where it distracted me from a slight fear for flying and from wasting my evenings on television while I lounged in my hotel room alone). All of this said, there's something so easily forgettable about all of Sittenfeld's books, and this one (despite the loftiness of its subject matter) is no exception. I can't help but think a writer so talented she can make readers have empathy for a terrible man's wife should also be able to conjure up something I might recall hours after having read it. I will likely continue to indulge in Sittenfeld's books, but I hope they get less fluffy because I think she's capable of more.
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Product Details

Sittenfeld, Curtis
Random House Trade
Presidents' spouses -- United States.
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
New York Times Notable Books
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
A&#8221;<br><b><i>&#8211;Washington Post<br></i><b
7.97 x 5.18 x 1.21 in 1 lb

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American Wife (New York Times Notable Books) Used Trade Paper
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$7.95 In Stock
Product details 592 pages Random House Trade - English 9780812975406 Reviews:
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "Ms. Sittenfeld deftly captures Alice's uneasy assimilation into the Blackwell clan's boisterous...and she proves equally adept at evoking the daily texture of their early married life."
"Review" by , "Curtis Sittenfeld boldly imagines the inner life of a first lady. Does she pull off a credible portrayal? Yes, unequivocally."
"Review" by , "Sittenfeld wraps her arms around it. The scope and detail of American Wife are reminiscent of Richard Russo."
"Review" by , "Sittenfeld's most ambitious and impressive work to date."
"Synopsis" by , A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice Lindgren has no idea that she will one day end up in the White House, married to the president. In her small Wisconsin hometown, she learns the virtues of politeness, but a tragic accident when she is seventeen shatters her identity and changes the trajectory of her life. More than a decade later, when the charismatic son of a powerful Republican family sweeps her off her feet, she is surprised to find herself admitted into a world of privilege. And when her husband unexpectedly becomes governor and then president, she discovers that she is married to a man she both loves and fundamentally disagrees with-and that her private beliefs increasingly run against her public persona. As her husbands presidency enters its second term, Alice must confront contradictions years in the making and face questions nearly impossible to answer.
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