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Discussion Questions: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

1. The novel opens and closes with Alice wondering if she’s made terrible mistakes. Do you think she has? If so, what are they?

Nicely worded question there. It took me a full thirty seconds before I realized that Alice’s story packs an equal amount of mistakes for Republican readers (the abortion, talking to the anti-war activist) as it does for Democrats (standing by while Charlie started a war with Iraq, standing by while sober Charlie gained the conviction that he was an instrument of God’s will). I think Alice should’ve pushed her husband to realize that he had blood on his hands, but at the same time the book makes it extremely difficult to fault Alice for falling in love, and for doing what she had to do to protect herself and her family.

2. Alice’s grandmother passes down her love of reading. How else is Alice influenced by her grandmother?

Alice’s grandmother makes Alice want to be less boring. Getting involved with Charlie was one way of accomplishing that. Also Alice’s grandmother was a lesbian who chose to stay in the closet in order to avoid upsetting her son. This sets a type of precedent that Alice confronts in her own way, though what she stays in the closet about is her politics. The question is whether or not, when Alice asserts herself towards the end, she asserts herself enough.

3. Why does Andrew remain such an important figure to Alice, even decades later? Do you think they would have ended up together under different circumstances?

Andrew, the high school classmate Alice killed in a car accident, remains an important figure because of the way his memory preoccupies Alice and the way she blames herself for killing him when really his death was just extremely bad luck. This sets up the critical moment towards the end when she realizes that she doesn’t feel responsible for the many deaths happening in Iraq even though maybe she should.

4. To what do you attribute Dena’s anger at what she calls Alice’s betrayal? Do you believe her anger is justified?

Dena’s anger arises from workaday jealousy and therefore is more petty than justified. But I do feel for Dena. Growing up with Alice, Dena thought of herself as the hot ticket but she wound up with a chubby reformed pyramid schemer while Alice wound up in the White House.

5. Is Charlie a likable character? Can you understand Alice’s attraction to him?

Absolutely. Charlie was a pure charmer not in spite of the fact that he was a brute, but because he was a brute—he was exactly the sort of ultra-strong personality Alice needed to rouse her from the confines of her ultra-composed way of being.

6. Does Alice compromise herself and her ideals during her marriage, or does she realistically alter her behavior and expectations in order to preserve the most important relationship in her life?

This here really is the main question. Alice’s big thing is that relationships require compromise, and her particular relationship requires compromise of an especially massive variety. For me, I would’ve liked to see Alice fight a little harder for her ideals. I would’ve liked to see her get in Charlie’s face. The irony of her refusal to interfere with his politics is that she had him wrapped around her finger. All she would’ve had to do was refuse to reward his impish grin and he would’ve capitulated to whatever she wanted.

7. Were you surprised by the scene between Alice and Joe at the Princeton reunion? Why do you think it happened?

The best part of the Joe sequence is when he grovels to Alice for affection in his totally pathetic way, getting Alice to think that Charlie might not be perfect but that Joe’s way of being pathetic is something she could never tolerate. Sittenfeld loves to write about sex—the blowjob scene in Prep, the time at the fictionalized Kennebunkport when Alice tells Charlie to “stick his penis inside [her]”—and there’s something primal, something sexual about Sittenfeld’s sweaty, unapologetic George W. Bush. It makes it seem like that’s what the world boils down to—either you want the sexual force or you want the groveling that’s morally upright yet completely meek and unbearable.

8. What would you have done in Alice’s situation at the end of the novel? Do you think it was wrong of her to take the stance she did?

With the abortion or the anti-war activist? I would’ve told Charlie to derail Ingrid Sanchez’s nomination to the Supreme Court, but without going public about the abortion. And with the activist, I would’ve done just what Alice did except that, in her confrontation with Charlie, I would’ve pushed harder, and would’ve demanded Charlie to recognize that, even if “[t]here are casualties under every president,” he’s still responsible for the particular casualties happening under his watch in Iraq.

9. How do you think Laura Bush would react to this novel if she read it?

This book is Curtis Sittenfeld going inside Laura Bush in order to explain the phenomenon of George W. Bush; Alice’s complicity with her husband’s faults is not unlike the American people’s complicity with W.’s war. Alice is a proxy for us—W. charmed us so we let him get away with murder. But I would imagine Laura Bush would say her relationship with her husband is a lot different than the one we have with him.

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Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.