Dreams of Laura
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: July 9, 2008
It’s summer beach reading time and Maureen Dowd has an advanced review copy of a book the rest of us don’t get to buy until September. The book is the thinly veiled story of the current First Lady.
The cover of this fantasy version of Laura Bush’s life, “American Wife,” is alluring, a woman’s shapely figure in a white gown, with white opera gloves and a diamond ring.Joe Klein of Time magazine was the "Anonymous" that wrote Primary Colors, the novel not-very-loosely based on the 1992 Clinton campaign. Rather than wince and grimace at the fictionalized sex scenes of the similar Bush-based book, Dowd finds the story vibrant and exciting.
The author is not Anonymous, or Eponymous or Pseudonymous, yet there is the air of a “Primary Colors” stunt about this political roman à clef, which is timed to come out during the Republican convention.
Still, it’s not a salacious tell-all, and words like “smear” and “gossip” are misplaced. It’s a well-researched book that imagines what lies behind that placid facade of the first lady, a women’s book-club novel by a young woman named Curtis Sittenfeld who has written two best sellers, including “Prep.”Dowd precisely pins down a feeling many people get from Laura Bush’s persona:
You don’t get any fingerprints from Laura Bush. When you look into her eyes during an interview, you feel as if she is there somewhere, deep inside herself, miles and miles down.But then Maureen awkwardly scrambles for a metaphor that never quite docks:
But there’s only one vessel that can ferry you past Laura’s moat, and that’s fiction. Ms. Sittenfeld has creatively applied her crayons to all the ambiguous blanks in the coloring book.In defending lightly fictionalized versions of real people, Dowd invokes Flaubert, proving once again that she took high school English:
For “Madame Bovary,” Flaubert partly drew on the real-life story of Delphine Delamare, a village doctor’s unhappy wife who had lots of lovers and a premature and humiliating death.In addition to Flaubert, she also gets to name check her American Lit reading list:
How could a novelist not be drawn to such a tragedy? It’s easy to imagine all that guilt, shame, conscience, fear, sex and nightmares in the hands of Eudora Welty or Larry McMurtry.And of course, we get a Movies With Maureen® double feature with both Marion The Librarian and Donna Reed.
And the story of the quiet, pretty librarian who could suffer the fate of being an old maid if not rescued by the dashing hero is a favorite American narrative — from “The Music Man” to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”But Laura Bush’s real life has a history of tragedy beyond having to be married to Dubya.
During her husband’s presidential runs, many reporters shied away from asking Laura Bush about the freakishly horrible accident she had when she was 17. Hurrying to a party, she ran a stop sign in Midland, Tex., one night on Farm Road 868 and ran into a car that turned out to be driven by the golden boy of her high school, a cute star athlete she was believed to have had a crush on. He died instantly of a broken neck.Which lets Maureen quote a Laura Bush biographer about the incident:
As Ann Gerhart wrote in “The Perfect Wife”: “Killing another person was a tragic, shattering error for a girl to make at 17. It was one of those hinges in a life, a moment when destiny shuddered, then lurched in a new direction. In its aftermath, Laura became more cautious and less spontaneous, more inclined to be compassionate.”But going back to the fictionalized version, part of the fun of this type of book is finding the real-life counterparts. Maureen practically cackles over the portrayal of matriarch Barbara Bush:
The Barbara Bush doppelgänger, dubbed “Maj,” for Her Majesty, is as tart as ever. “When she turned her attention to me,” Alice says of Maj, “I always felt, and not in a positive way, as if we were the only ones in the room and total vigilance were required.”And in prose, we are able to look inside the heads of people we can only watch from the outside in real life.
In the novel, Alice, tormented by the choices her husband has made about the war that she’s stood by, blurts out to a grieving father that she thinks the war should end. In life, we can only wonder how Laura feels.And since we may never know, we will have to settle for looking into Laura's eyes through the East Wing window.