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‘American Wife’ sharply skewers the first family

“American Wife”

by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, 576 pages, $26)

If you’ve ever wondered, while watching President Bush cavorting through the minefields of foreign policy and public opinion, “What must Laura be thinking?” novelist Curtis Sittenfeld has written the book for you.

“American Wife” looks at the first lady through a fact-based, though highly fictionalized, lens that presents Mrs. Bush as essentially standing in for the country.

As disenchanted supporters might ask, “What were we thinking, electing him again?” in these waning days of the Bush administration, so Alice Blackwell, the Laura Bush stand-in, asks herself of her affably goofy husband, Charlie: “What was I thinking, marrying that man?”

Sittenfeld established herself as an insightful literary spy into insular societies with her first book, “Prep,” about the nightmares of prep school.

Here, she turns her sharply focused beam on the whimsies and atrocities of the wealthy, personified by the Wisconsin meat-packing dynasty run by former governor Harold Blackwell and his sons, including the ne’er-do-well Charlie.

Sittenfeld draws freely on the life of both Bushes. Alice, like Laura, is a bookish teen who becomes an elementary schoolteacher, then a librarian. While a high school student, Alice runs a stop sign and hits another car, killing her classmate Andrew, with whom she was secretly in love. (Laura was involved in a similar accident in 1963.)

Following an unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat, Charlie buys a managing interest in the Milwaukee Brewers (as George W. Bush did with the Texas Rangers). It’s his perfect job, allowing him to watch 80-plus games a year while guzzling beer and call it work.

His alcoholism and obsession with his legacy nearly destroy his marriage, but Alice sticks it out as he finds Jesus and ends up in the White House.

The author throws some nice curveballs into the mix: Alice’s beloved grandmother, Emilie, has a lesbian love affair with a Chicago doctor. When Alice capitulates to Andrew’s brother in a grief-fueled one-night stand after the accident, Emilie’s lover performs her abortion.

The dead Andrew serves as a sort of guardian angel-moral sentinel to Alice’s actions: He comes to her in a dream on her wedding night and every couple of weeks from then on.

The book also contains a good deal of sagacious humor. Hank Ucker, the oily stand-in for Karl Rove, irks Laura on their very first meeting by giving away the ending of the book she’s reading. Priscilla Blackwell, the Barbara Bush doppelganger, doesn’t wear pearls, but you get the definite idea she’s the brains behind the dynasty.

Because the book is so blatantly based on the Bushes, the explicit sex scenes fall into the category of “too much information,” at least for me.

Sittenfeld’s story is good enough, and well-written enough, that it should stand on its own merits. But by cutting so close to the Bushes’ real-life story, she risks having her message lost as readers focus instead on juicy details that, despite being fictional, seem just a tad too much like the latest Brit-news on TMZ or “Entertainment Tonight.”

Joy Tipping writes for the Dallas Morning News.