Saturday, 19 February 2011

Fictional FLOTUSes...

So here's the real and long-mulled-over post on American Wife and Primary Colours. It's the first time I've written at any length about novels since I left university, and I'm definitely out of practice.

Primary Colors
- I've wanted to see the film for ever, but never tracked it down. Finally saw the book in Waterstones and lashed out.

It's a roman a clef, about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign in 1992 - but the similarity comes through characters and situations rather than through the specific features of the plot. It's told through the voice of an idealistic 'pol' (Henry) who joins the campaign at an early stage and follows his arc from his initial inspiration by an idealised candidate (Jack) with a real love for and commitment to 'real voters', through difficult debates as he confronts the candidate's constant cheating of his wife and low skulduggery to improve his chances, and on to exhaustion and exasperation as Henry plans to leave the campaign.
But the book closes as the campaign gains momentum again and Jack turns his charm and warmth to press Henry to stay on - we don't know what happens but my guess is that he gets sucked back in. Many reviews cite Primary Colours as a satire - I wasn't struck by humour, but did feel the sense of informed, committed cynicism.

I loved the politics - and while reading (and often while thinking during the day) I often found myself thinking about the sense it generates of pacy politics, rapid analysis and strategising and carefully calculated moves. I like the way that the novel - like a lot of good TV - steps straight into jargon and conversation and expects the reader to work out the significance of (for example) a campaign having both old ladies and teenagers volunteering. I suspect that part of my sense of pace comes from the overlap in context and tone with the West Wing.

I found Susan Stanton's character utterly alienating, and mostly because of her responses to Jack. Her portrayal is complex - there are flashes of empathy and Henry feels angry for her; but her one night stand feels like calculated retaliation rather than a reaching out for affection. And her responses to Jack are an odd mixture of maternal care, disappointment and guidance and coach, business partner and co-performer. I can't pin it down - but my feelings toward Susan are very similar to my ambivalence about Hilary Clinton. She should be an inspiration - but somehow her compromises for power turn me off.

American Wife
 - I picked it up on the man's recommendation, after he'd read it for his book club and loved it.

It's a roman a clef, about Laura Bush and how she became the First Lady that most people saw as a mass of contradictions and compromise. The story begins long before Alice meets Charlie, and we need to know about her background - normal in so many ways - in order to make sense of the fact that she accepts Charlie's attention, gradually falls for him and then stays with him through the rough times of his drinking and as he runs (repeatedly) for office. Although Charlie is her first adult relationship in which she is respected for her own views and personality, once they marry she is pushed into a role defined by her sex and class, and as first lady of the state and then United States she is expected (and largely acquiesces) to set her own views to one side and even to refuse to engage with criticisms of her husband's administration.

It's a very very sympathetic portrayal - I felt for Alice, identified with her conventional, bookish (and slightly prudish) upbringing and empathised with her friendships, her enjoyment of work, her insecurity and her sense of dislocation when confronted with the crude, extravert, confident and supremely wealthy Blackwell clan. This empathy and positive portrayal carried me along to accept the succession of compromises with her (in part, I think, because we know from the start that they will eventually move to the White House, experience 9/11 and launch the Iraq War). As she started to look back and reflect, I found myself starting to justify her behaviour - and then turning against her passivity and acceptance.
"Was I mutable, without a fixed identity? I could see the arguments for every side, for and against people like the Blackwells” “Charlie . . . had told me I had a strong sense of myself, but I wondered then if the opposite was true — if what he took for strength was a bending sort of accommodation to his ways.”
The car crash which kills Andrew leads her into a relationship with his brother and the long-denied (and finally crucial) abortion - and the final turning point for Alice brings together two touchstones in American politics - Roe vs Wade and gay rights. We wouldn't expect a woman from this background to end up married to a radically Republican president - she seeks to rationalise it by explaining her love for him, and that it is the American people who elected him. She justifies it with her very brief statements of support for a woman's right to choose. But I can't help thinking this is a decent woman who married a cartoonish figure and has lost an awful lot of herself in the process.

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