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Laura Bush

In "American Wife," a novel loosely inspired by the life of Laura Bush, Curtis Sittenfeld boldly imagines the inner life of a first lady.

Does she pull off a credible portrayal? Yes, unequivocally. Does she capture the heart and mind of the enigmatic Laura Bush? Only the first lady can say.

The best-selling author of "Prep" is a liberal Democrat. She may not like the politics of the Bush White House, but she has said she admires Laura Bush. That admiration sets the tone for an intimate and daring story told in the first person by Alice Blackwell, who marries a wealthy man who becomes president.

"American Wife" is a vicarious experience, an up-close portrait of the interior life of a very complicated woman, but most is fiction. Alice's life mirrors that of Laura Bush's in many ways: a car accident in which a youthful Alice kills a teenage boy, her career as a librarian, her husband's rise from co-owner of a baseball team to governor and then president.

"American Wife" begins in 2007 but immediately turns back to Alice's childhood. Instead of Texas, the Blackwells' pre-White House lives are set in Wisconsin.

It may be impossible for readers not to picture President and Mrs. Bush while reading about Alice and Charlie. This gives the novel cinematic qualities that enhance the reading experience. But explicit sex scenes will make you feel like a voyeur.

Alice is a woman of considerable intellect, compassion and character. She's a Democrat when she meets Charlie, a Republican. He's a lovable scamp, a devoted husband and father, a man with fierce beliefs and a stubborn nature — and a 32 percent approval rating in 2007. Their marriage is one of intense devotion and loyalty.

Her imaginings of what it's like to be in the White House post-9/11 and during a contentious war (Iraq is never mentioned) are mesmerizing and believable.

If the book has one weakness, it's that Sittenfeld spends too much time letting Alice wring her hands with guilt over her privileged life. She makes up for it with the first lady's startling final confession — an ending foreshadowed by the novel's tantalizing first sentence: "Have I made terrible mistakes?"


Laura Bush has no plans to read book

American Wife may draw on the life of Laura Bush, but the book isn't on her reading list, according to the White House.

Mrs. Bush has no plans to read the novel, says her spokeswoman, Sally McDonough.

American Wife goes on sale Tuesday.

We're not commenting on the book, McDonough says.

David Jackson