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Imagining The Life Of The President's Wife

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Curtis Sittenfeld's first novel Prep placed her squarely on the literary map. The success of that tale of a scholarship student at a fancy New England academy reflected, in part, the power of American mythology about transcending class. With her latest novel, American Wife, Sittenfeld reaches once more into the mind of a woman attempting to make sense of entitlement, privilege and personal authenticity.

American Wife is a thinly veiled, fictionalized account of Laura Bush, the former librarian now consort to one of the most powerful figures in the world. Demure yet dynamic, intelligent and apparently sincere, Bush has long been a figure of fascination to Sittenfeld, who outlined her schoolgirl crush on the first lady in a 2004 article in Salon.

Sittenfeld identifies with Bush as a voracious reader and a teacher. (The author taught ninth-grade English for several years at one of Washington D.C.'s most moneyed and exclusive private schools.) But what has Sittenfeld so perversely smitten — the author defines herself as a staunch liberal Democrat — is what she describes as her subject's cool unpretentiousness.

American Wife has received largely favorable reviews. The Chicago Tribune called it "Sittenfeld's most ambitious and impressive work to date."

You could almost hear the sigh of relief in the conservative New York Sun's summation of the novel: Not only was American Wife "no hatchet job," it was "vastly entertaining." Joyce Carol Oates was more measured. Writing in The New York Times, she described American Wife as an amiable, occasionally provocative effort.

This reading of American Wife took place in September 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.