Americans like to pretend we don't have a class system. We imagine that anyone can become president of the company, president of the Junior League or president of the United States. It's not true, of course. We have a thriving, though subtle and slippery, class system, largely powered by old money and the old-school tie.
Writers get it: F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby makes a fortune, buys a mansion and throws swell parties, yet he's still an outsider, nose pressed to the window looking in at the world of the well-bred and well-connected who will never accept him.
Politicians get it, too: George W. Bush and Al Gore got head starts in the world because of their upper-crust families. Bill Clinton may have been born poor and obscure, but going to Oxford and Yale gave him the entree into power.
Curtis Sittenfeld is one of our best contemporary chroniclers of class and caste. In her bestselling debut novel Prep, a bright kid from a lower-middle-class family wins a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school and discovers that the rich really are different from you and me. In her new novel American Wife, Sittenfeld tells the story of a small-town librarian who marries a grinning, ambitious, yet utterly incurious scion of a millionaire political dynasty and ends up in the White House.
Sound familiar? It should. Alice Lindgren is based on Laura Bush, just as Charlie Blackwell is based on George W. Bush. Sittenfeld replaces Texas with Wisconsin, which at least spares us easy cowboy jokes.
Alice is the child of stoic Scandinavians for whom the highest virtue is to avoid being gossiped about. She appears to be the perfect 1950s ingenue: sweet and studious, with an ambition to attend the local teacher's college. But underneath, Alice takes after her grandmother. Granny Emilie believes "Negroes should have rights," women should have careers, and sex is a natural human drive, not a dirty sin.
Then one night in her senior year Alice runs a stop sign and hits a car, fatally injuring a high school classmate.
In the hands of another writer, this would send Alice off into a gothic realm of self-recrimination and guilt. But Sittenfeld does not milk it. Alice atones in a way that is both shocking and believable, yet understated, and begins a life of things unspoken.
It's hard to separate this novel from the famous people whose story it so closely parallels. Charlie Blackwell, the rich boy who fails in his first congressional run, fails at owning a baseball team, then unexpectedly succeeds in becoming a governor, then president, follows the trajectory of George Bush's career.
Laura Bush, like Alice, was involved in a car accident that killed a boy from her high school. Both Laura Bush and Alice threatened to leave their hard-drinking young husbands (who find Jesus just in time), and both become first ladies suspected of having more progressive politics than their spouses. Sittenfeld even gets the sorority right: Laura Welch was a Kappa Alpha Theta at Southern Methodist University; Alice Lindgren was a KAT at UW.
But what most readers will find most arresting — or jaw-dropping — is how Sittenfeld presents the strange romance between Alice and Charlie. She's serious; he's not. She's diligent and abstemious; he's a lazy drunk. What do they have in common? Sex. They really like to do it.
Indeed, Alice realizes she could love this big-mouthed manchild as soon as she sees him nude and, er, ready for action. Whew. Still, many marriages have been made on such a chemical rush, and many novels written about the fallout.
American Wife is fiction. Neither we nor Sittenfeld know the real story on the Bushes in bed — or even at the breakfast table. But Sittenfeld imagines this couple so deliciously and so plausibly, and inhabits Alice's slightly prissy, undramatic voice so elegantly, that those who are allergic even to fantasy Bushes will enjoy the ride — especially once Alice finds herself in the Blackwell family's wonderland of money and status.
Charlie has a Jeblike brother who welcomes Alice to the clan with a filthy limerick, a quietly decent father and a godawful mother. Her children call her "Maj," as in "Her Majesty." Once Alice marries Charlie, the battle-ax dedicates herself to tormenting her new daughter-in-law.
When Alice impulsively takes Ruby, the Blackwell family cook, to the theater, Maj takes a dim view: " 'It was extremely inappropriate,' she was saying, and her voice was neither loud nor excited; it was merely frosty. 'My household help is my concern . . . You must imagine you're providing some sort of cultural edification for her, is that it?' "
You may be reminded of the time Barbara Bush visited Hurricane Katrina refugees in Houston and congratulated them, since camping on the floor of the Houston Astrodome was clearly superior to the "underprivileged" lives they had in New Orleans.
Sittenfeld is not trying to parody the Bushes, she's trying to get at the profound tension between the country's democratic ideals and the hard realities of class. Alice turns herself into an exemplary First Lady, but the boy whose death she caused so long ago and her own sexual past return to haunt her and perhaps destroy her husband's presidency.
"Have I made terrible mistakes?" she asks herself. There's no easy answer. Curtis Sittenfeld invents a deep, messy, sympathetic life for a public person whose surface is all we'll ever know.
Diane Roberts is author of "Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans and Other Florida Wildlife."