American In-Law

Last night, I finished Curtis Sittenfeld’s new book, American Wife. Sittenfeld continues to impress me. I liked her first two books, but they seemed like well-written accounts of her own life. And while I’m in no position to judge that, I was happy to see her move beyond the self roman à clef genre with a fictionalized account of someone else, namely Laura Bush

While I agree that the book loses some momentum in the last fifty pages as Sittenfeld projects her own distaste of the Iraq invasion on Alice Blackwell, overall, it’s a perfect vacation read. I don’t say this disdainfully: to make a book as engaging as American Wife takes great talent, talent Sittenfeld has showed in Prep and Man of My Dreams.

Like the Bush family, the Blackwells in American Wife are successful, clannish and obsessed with their own traditions. As a democrat who grew up middle class, Alice feels like, and is, an outsider. Entering a new family is sort of like rushing a frat. Unfortunately, the person asking you to join can’t relate since they never had to pledge. As their marriage progresses, it’s easier to assume her in-law’s traditions than to create her own. While this is a heightened representation of the in-law experience, in its exaggeration, it shows some truth. I’ve always thought that in-laws are in an unspoken competition to become the dominate family, a competition usually won by aggressiveness and good plans.

Luckily for Alice, this outsider feeling goes away when she becomes First Lady and her in-laws start sucking up to her. If it only it were that simple for the rest of us.