Tuesday, April 14, 2009

American Wife

By Curtis Sittenfeld

There is not a little voyeurism in the attraction this book holds. A thinly veiled imagining of the life of Laura Bush, one of the more popular First Ladies (always more popular than her husband) in America, American Wife chronicles the road to the White House of a quiet, book-ish librarian from middle America.

Alice Lindgren is an only child, growing up in Wisconsin. She inherits a life-long love of books from her feisty grandmother who shapes her liberal attitude and in many ways leads her on the road to adulthood. And living in a small town where poverty wasn’t a stranger, develops in her an in-built compassion for those less privileged. Alice is definitely not a shoo-in for the wife of a spoiled rich kid with ambitions for the White House without any real abilities.

Much like Laura, Alice is involved in a motor accident as a teenager where a boy she has a crush on is killed. Andrew’s death and her subsequent disastrous mistake leave life-long scars – of guilt, an inability to be truly happy and the need to hide a past. Alice grows up beautiful, goes to college, dates boys and men she does not truly care about – and then meets Charles Blackwell.

Charles, the George Bush stand-in, is the youngest son of a meat packer tycoon. He is bluff, hearty and seriously light-weight. He is ‘enchanted’ by Alice and she in turn inexplicably falls in love with him, his cheer, his ability to make her laugh (“whenever I was with him, my life seemed dense with possibilities, fuller and noisier and far more fun…now I saw the case for larks and mischief”) The physical attraction is not light-weight and the sex feels like having a camera on in the White House bedroom! The Blackwell family and the Maj (Her Majesty is the nickname for the Barbara-like matriarch) are great attempts at portraiture, and Alice soon learns to live with in-laws she has little in common with.

As she moves on to start a life with Charles, Alice is very aware that she is taking a step that might mean living a double life – where her private belief system is constantly at war with her public face - a registered Democrat who publicly endorses a Republican husband for Governor and later the President; her own pro-choice stance at odds with her husband’s rabid anti-abortion one; her ambivalence towards religion contrasting with Charles’ born-again Christianity. She attempts a walk-out once, when his drinking gets the better of him; but she soon returns, knowing she has made a choice she wants to live with.

The best parts of the book are the first three – her childhood in Riley, life as a single working woman and her married life. There is a realness to the character that makes you feel completely empathetic towards the young mild Alice, struggling with loss (possibly the loss of the love of her life!) as a teenager, carrying a quiet confidence about her as a young woman working at a job she loves and meeting men she knows she will never love, and making a choice as a wife – a choice that meant she would sacrifice private beliefs towards building a relationship with a man she loved. The least interesting and convincing is the part in the White House. Her ruminations after a war that has gone horribly wrong, her regret that maybe she should have spoken out earlier, her token actions (not voting for her husband, talking to anti-war demonstrators) – all seem forced and uncharacteristic of a woman who had till the other day, made peace with her choices. Her justifications come across as defensive and completely unnecessary - “All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power”. The White House chapter also makes the Laura Bush shadow seem most vivid, taking away from what could be authentic fiction (without the feeling of being a peeping Tom).

But American Wife is a riveting read. The story at its heart is warming and tangible and real. It is very easy to fall in love with Alice Blackwell née Lindgren.

Dev D

Hindi cinema’s fascination for this Sarat Chandra novel is quite inexplicable if you have read the book (in my opinion, a painfully dragged out story of the life and destruction of a weak, sniveling man). But the umpteenth re-make of the story on celluloid leads me to believe there is something to the story that I have been missing.

So Anurag Kashyap’s version of Devdas comes as a relief. At long last, I find the story interesting. Because here is at least a fresh take on quite a done-to-death tale. He has taken the core of it and set in contemporary times – the Bengali village becomes Chandigarh and the seedy by-lanes of Calcutta become Delhi’s Paharganj.

Abhay Deol, the poster boy of the new wave of ‘multiplex cinema’ makes for a non-formulaic actor as do the two new faces playing Paro and Chanda. Chanda especially merits mention, for her very unusual beauty and the way she combines in a very Lolita way, innocence and worldliness.

As befitting the times, this is a sexed-up, drugged-up version of the tale (Paro is not the virginal martyr we come to expect but a red-blooded young Punjabi lass who is not beyond dragging a mattress to the fields - one of the most memorable scenes in the film - to consummate her love; the distance between Paro and Dev, when he is off studying in London is bridged by phone and internet sex; Chanda’s entry into whoredom is triggered by an MMS scandal in school; Dev’s substance abuse is not limited to alcohol) and this gives it a certain edginess so new to Indian cinema.

AK makes use of music beautifully to lead the story along, to set the tone, to accentuate the descent into drugged stupor. The photography and the saturated psychedelic colours too do the same. The look and sound work together to give the film a stunningly contemporary feel.

And then he goes and spoils it all for me at the end. Devdas as a character is according to me a weak and cruel man who treats the two women in his life (three, if you count his mother in the original) very badly. The only reason he gets any sympathy from a reader or a viewer is because you realize that deep at heart he knows his own shallowness and it is that knowledge that leads him to the path of self-destruction. And when he does drink himself to death, you know that there is justice in the world and you award him the epithet of the martyred lover. In Dev D, horror of horrors, there is redemption for Dev! How can such a weak stupid man live happily ever after?

Anurag Kashyap, you turn out to be a male chauvinist after all! And in the process, turn a well set story in my head upside down. That is unforgivable, however brilliant the rest of the film may be.


There is a room in my head

The door is whimsical and moody

The key keeps getting lost

And getting in is usually serendipity

I know it’s a parallel world, like Pullman’s

Things happen there that do not here

Beggars speak to me as do kings

Bored housewives, songwriters past their prime

They tell me their stories, show me their wounds

Laugh with me, tell me preposterous lies

I see through them in that room

I know them, like God knows his creatures

The colours are deeper there, vivid, blown up

The voices are clear, there is no noise to drown them out

I love those stories, love that I can hear them

Love that I can live in hope of one day telling them


I am suddenly tired of words

Tired of hoping against hope

They will yield some import

Yield resonance with something deep

I scramble around for the right ones

Doubtful of ever finding them

Tired of forever playing games

Hide-and-seek, catch-me-if-you-can

I am slowly growing old playing

Despairing of ever forcing a win

It is a young man’s sport

A lifetime ahead to try, to fail, to try again

Yet they draw me back over and over,

Drug-like, over peaks and valleys

Challenging, deriding, playing coquette

And I start to play again.


It comes crawling out of the mind’s woodwork

Hurting, stabbing, burrowing deep

Gnawing away at self-esteem, eating away steadily at ego

Burning to a cinder all that’s good in me.

While your coffee talk turns to dinner conversation

My small talk becomes the insignificance it truly is

And I prepare to go quietly into a lonesome night

When jealousy comes crawling.