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?