Author: Curtis Sittenfeld, 2008.
Genre: Period-Contemporary.Family Saga. Roman á clef.
Other Details: Paperback. 640 pages.
This novel, set mainly in the late 20th century USA, is the tale of Alice Lindgren, a quiet bookish young woman who ends up becoming First Lady after she marries into the powerful Blackwell family. While Alice Blackwell is a fictional character, the novel is a Roman á clef based on the life of Laura Bush.
I had been a little wary of this when it came up as selection for one of my reading groups but actually found it a totally engrossing novel that I just flew through despite its length. None of us in the group had any real knowledge of Laura Bush's background and life apart from knowing that she was a popular First Lady. It was a very easy read and while far from a 'tell-all' there were a few sizzling scenes that drew more than a few risqué remarks from our largely female reading group. The other most common comment was how affable her husband, Charlie Blackwell, came across.
The novel generated a lot of discussion, which is always good for a reading group selection. It is coming up again in 2012 at my library reading group and I am quite looking forward to re-visiting it then.
'American Wife' on Curtis Sittenfeld website - includes excerpt, related articles and interviews.
Author: Catherine O'Flynn, 2010.
Genre: Comedy Drama. Contemporary. Architecture. Mass Media.
Other Details: Paperback. 311 pages.
Set in 2009/10, the main character is Frank Allcroft, a 40-something presenter on 'Heart of England Reports', a fictionalised version of the BBC's Midlands Today. He is a quiet man who is fairly ineffectual and is haunted by the recent death of his mentor, Phil Smethway, in a hit-and-run accident. He also spends his time paying his respects to those individuals whose claim to fame is that they have died alone and unmarked in the city.
He is also confused by his feelings about his late father's post-war architectural legacy, which had destroyed much of Birmingham's Victorian heritage and is now was facing demolition in its own turn. Douglas Allcroft is loosely based on Birmingham architect John Madin and the issues ones faced by this and other urban areas.
O'Flynn's second novel is another multi-layered work combining a gentle character study of a middle-aged man with a touch of mystery. She explores various themes such as the nature of friendship, growing old, urban renewal and the legacy of what we each leave behind. It is heart-warming and quite funny in places, especially in her depiction of local newsroom politics.
I attended an Orange Prize for Fiction event in 2009 where Catherine was talking about its genesis and the pressures for a new author after writing an award-winning first novel. Aside from a comedic drama this is a love letter to the city of Birmingham, so often ignored in favour of London. As a reading group selection it proved a hit with the entire group, not only for it being an engaging read but because we all are familiar with Birmingham and some of the 'horrors' of its post-war cityscape.