B is for Book Club

So it happened. Our illustrious book club leader had to leave us to eat pie in San Fran for a year and we needed a new convener… and the poor saps are stuck with me. Yep – old ‘ranty ranty, I like reading crime novels’ is now in charge of book club. 

So B is for Book Club (which is a bit lazy and a bit naff and now I have the Letter B song from Sesame Street in my head) and our latest selection was American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. I didn’t pick it. A novel detailing the life of a woman who becomes the first lady, but it’s fiction, but it isn’t (see further down). Not really my kind of game, but neither’s golf yet I lurve putt putt. I’m sure somewhere in my guise as reading group fuhrer there’s potential for simply selecting the novels I want to read and pretending it was what everyone wanted, but in these early days I’m trying to run some kind of democratic caravan and Sittenfeld’s third novel had backers. And you know what? I liked it. I’d recommend it. I am recommending it. I’m not cock-a-hoop over it, but I liked it. Genuinely. And despite the number of reasons why I shouldn’t have liked it.

Some of these reasons are:

* I may keep a photo of Barack on my desk but the story of an all-American girl cum First Lady is not my story of choice;

* The main character/narrator – Alice – is fairly passive;

* The author tends to have her characters harp on a few things the reader doesn’t need to be harped on at;

* Alice is a tad too unflappable for my liking;

* Alice is, wait for it, based on Laura Bush. Which means her husband Charlie, a fairly amusing knuckle head, is George Dub. Yesiree, Bob.

But, wait, stop. Don’t – if I am pre-judging my audience correctly – let that put you off. It makes a few things a little weird – for example we get a description of Charlie’s (ie George W’s)  penis at one stage – but it’s not really until some serious ‘real-life’ events start coming in – ie September 11 – that the resemblance is so blunt. And it’s supposed to be based on Laura Bush’s life but it’s also supposed to contain a lot of fiction. The author insists on this.

So this is  a life story, which when about to read this kinda jazz I sometimes take a metaphorical big breath because they seem so large and so general. But our protagonist, Alice, has a way about her. Yes, she is a quiet character, and I think fairly passive, but she is also one of those great things – a keen observer. The way Sittenfeld tells us so much through Alice’s observations is extremely clever, especially as you don’t notice what she’s doing. You just think Alice is musing. But the fabulous stuff she notices. Minutiae of the everyday, of doing something simple like walking down a path, fetching a drink at a party, creating papier-mache, of how we talk to people, what we don’t say to others. We hear Alice’s very thoughts, uncensored, from a character who spends most of her life doing and saying what she thinks will be best for those she loves, for everyone else, for peace, for sense. And it’s not that in her mind she has a different voice, but I loved her studied sense of herself, others and of everyday life. Sure, Sittenfeld needlessly refers to Alice’s father’s sayings a little, I think she unnecessarily sticks too close to actual events in the later section of the novel, and I was never wholly convinced by the childhood crush storyline which weaves through the story, but, BUT, I defy you to not find this an engaging, enjoyable and easy read and to not find something, if not several things, which Alice says, which she notices or comments on, which don’t hit you as some kind of inherent truth about yourself or life in general. They’re not breakthrough epiphanic thoughts, necessarily, but they are affecting, thought-provoking and soul-nodding.

So did this Obama-loving, crime-reading, bleeding-heart liberal, not used to reading a whole ton of women’s fiction, feel like her reading experience was detrimentally affected by a novel kind-of-sort-of-but-not-really based on the life of Mrs Neo-Con? No. I truly don’t think it matters and I kind of forgot that Alice and Charlie were kind of Laura and the Dub. Charlie was a bit of a goof but I liked him and I have never liked anything about George W except that he’s out of office.

So hurrah, to the reading group democratic caravan and the selection of American Wife. Discovering you really liked a book you thought you had no interest in is one of the things I love about book group.

(Between you and me I’m terrified of being the new book club leader, but we can talk about that later.)

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