American Wife

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

This novel is loosely inspired by the life of Laura Bush. Very, very loosely. It asks, what if the wife of a “pro-life” president had had an abortion as a teenager?

The action of the book focuses closely on four periods in the first lady’s life. First, when she was a teenager and fell in love for the first time and had an abortion. Next, her meeting the future president and their whirlwind courtship. Most of the pages of the book are devoted to a period in the couple’s life before his political career, a crisis in their marriage when he was drinking heavily and their values seemed especially at odds. The final section depicts one day in her life as First Lady, a day in which she’s confronted with her past and makes a decision of her own to oppose her husband.

Sittenfeld is one of those authors that I want to read everything she’s ever written. The reasonable, pragmatic voice of this narrator is one that I’ll remember for a long time. The book really made me think about why it’s hard when couples disagree over politics and what kinds of compromises can be made. It’s not the kind of book that gives the one true answer to questions like that, just poses the question and shows one particular character’s answer, and what it costs her.

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

This book was one of those that I couldn’t put down. It was like juicy gossip shared among moms at a playground. So many of the descriptions of the mothers and how they treated each other rang so true to me. Even the children seemed like realistic characters, each of them with a precisely drawn and unique relationship to his or her mother, and I feel that is a challenge for a writer to pull off.

I haven’t seen the show based on it yet, but judging from the novel, I will say that Reese Witherspoon cast herself perfectly. Her character is big and loud and hilarious, but with an edge of anger and sadness from a tough divorce. Another main character is Jane, a young mother who’s new in town, and has a hard time navigating playground politics with mothers a decade older than her. There’s a bully in the kindergarten class and the daughter of the PTA pres alpha mom has been victimized, but no one is sure which child is the bully until the end. Class and generational tensions are rife, but some of the strongest friendships in the book are the ones that cross these barriers.

I didn’t know that domestic violence would be a main topic of the book, but I was impressed at the way it was handled. It wasn’t easy to read the inner thoughts of an abused wife and understand in a deep way why she would stay and what it would take to leave.

The twist at the end was absolutely perfect. It’s a happy ending, tied up in a neat bow; justice is done and our heroines are in a better place than they were. An incredibly satisfying read.