As a child, Alice Lindgren anticipated she would lead a quiet life in her small hometown of Riley, Wisconsin. She would be a teacher, and she would marry Andrew Imhof, the classmate of whom she seemed to be hyperaware. Of course, nothing in her life has gone the way she planned: though she did become a teacher, she did not remain in Riley. And she certainly didn’t marry Andrew Imhof; instead, she was responsible for the accident that killed him at the age of 17.
At the age of 31, Alice met the handsome, charismatic son of the former governor. Charlie Blackwell has little in common with Alice: where she is serious and kind, Charlie is lively and a touch self-absorbed. Yet Alice is utterly captivated by Charlie, and within a few short months of meeting, they marry. Their lives become ever more public, first as Charlie runs for Congress, then buys the Milwaukee Brewers, before eventually becoming governor of Wisconsin, and then President of the United States.
Alice’s story is a familiar one, particularly in the later part of her life, because it is the story of Laura Bush. There are, of course, differences between Mrs. Bush and Alice- to my knowledge, Laura Bush has never been anything other than a Republican, while Alice is a Democrat who does not vote for her husband either time he runs for President. And to my knowledge (and I could easily be wrong here), Mrs. Bush has never opposed her husband’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, publicly or privately.
For those who like active plots, this probably wouldn’t be a good choice. The novel slowly winds its way over Alice’s life, highlighting four of the most prominent residences of her life: her childhood home, the home she lives in before she marries Charlie, the first home she and Charlie buy together, and of course, the White House. Within each of those four residences, Sittenfeld chooses to focus on specific events: in her second home, the one she lives in between finishing college and marrying Charlie, it is the summer she met Charlie that receives the most attention. We learn almost nothing about her college experience, and only a little about her teaching experience. It is clear that Sittenfeld believes these events are the defining moments of Alice’s life.
One thing that was interesting to me was that, in some points in the novel, Alice laments Charlie’s fixation with his “legacy.” She thinks it an odd thing for him to be so concerned about at all times. Yet in a way, she is just as concerned with the legacy she leaves behind, though it manifests itself in different ways. She worries about the legacy she is leaving her daughter, as well as how people see her. Charlie desires a legacy of accomplishments and resolve; Alice wants to be remembered for her kindness (even if she doesn’t fully realize it).
Overall, I thought it was a beautifully written novel, and a touching tribute to a woman Sittenfeld clearly admires. There are places where the plot is undeniably slow, but I think it all works out in the execution.