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Image: Book cover for "American Wife"
Curtis Sittenfeld’s forthcoming novel “American Wife” follows a librarian who marries the president of the United States — a thinly veiled version of first lady Laura Bush.
TODAY contributor
updated 7/8/2008 2:01:54 PM ET 2008-07-08T18:01:54

There’s no question that Laura Bush provided the inspiration for protagonist in Curtis Sittenfeld’s upcoming novel, “American Wife.” And although the tale Sittenfeld concocts is almost pure fiction, there’s enough of the first lady in it to already have created a sensation in Washington, D.C.

Radaronline.com called “American Wife” “a thinly veiled novel based on Laura Bush's life that is sure to send the White House into a fury.”

A review of the plot synopsis and several lurid excerpts posted on Radar's site show why. Alice Blackwell, the title character, is a single child who grows up to be a librarian. A Democrat, she falls for the roguish son of a privileged family of Republican bluebloods. As a high school student, she kills a classmate in a traffic accident. As a young woman, she has an illegal abortion and discovers her grandmother is a lesbian. And she describes in graphic detail sex with the president of the United States, a man whose policies she comes to utterly disagree with but whom she continues to love.

The sex scenes, which are too graphic to reprint here, include a loving description of the presidential plumbing and musings on his "cute little butt."

“On the gossip front, the novel doesn't disappoint,” writes Radaronline.com. “Alice's antics are sure to have tongues chattering from coast to coast.”

Steamy sections
One such episode involves discovering her grandmother’s secret love for a female doctor. In one of the Radaronline.com excerpts, Alice narrates:

“...I stepped instead into the living room, and just before I crossed the threshold, I heard my grandmother's laughter, and just after I heard her laughter, I saw her sitting on Dr. Wycomb's lap, kissing Dr. Wycomb on the lips.

"Dr. Wycomb was dressed in a burgundy silk bathrobe; my grandmother was wearing a beige bra and a beige half-slip trimmed with lace. She was facing Dr. Wycomb, and their mouths were open a little and their eyes were closed, and the kiss went on for several seconds and had not yet stopped when I backed out.... I had to leave the apartment; there was no alternative.

"[...] Approaching the nearer vase, I pushed aside the greens and then I vomited—hideously, pungently, gloriously — into the vase's depths."

Sittenfeld, a young novelist schooled at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, has published two best-sellers: “Prep,” a tale of prep-school life that has been called an updated and female version of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” and “The Man of My Dreams.” Critically praised, she’s shown a talent for taking real people and places and dressing them up in fictional clothing.

Facts and fiction
She does that with Alice Blackwell, taking some actual facts about Laura and President Bush and then letting her imagination run wild. Laura Bush actually was a librarian, and, as a 17-year-old high school girl, she ran a stop sign in rural Texas and crashed into another car. The occupant, a highly popular athlete and her classmate, was killed.

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Buoyed by those few facts, readers are expected to gobble up the rest in the book, which is being published by Random House in time for the Republican National Convention in early September.

The synopsis on the publisher’s Web site hints at the conflicts faced by Alice Blackwell:

“As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek — one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie’s tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?”

Amazon.com, which is offering the $26 novel for $17.16, offers two jacket blurbs. The first, by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo, says: “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.”

Novelist Kurt Andersen also offers and endorsement: ““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.”

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