Monday, November 7, 2011

Books, The Women & Power Edition: An American Wife (Sittenfeld) and Pope Joan (

I confess...I' often amused to find that I go on unintentional theme sprees with my reading.  The two books I'm reviewing today are VERY different but both have women protagonists and both involve positions of power.  They are very different, but I like the theme and would love any suggestions for other books in the same vein.

  • An American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (side note: Curtis is a woman....just FYI)
I very deliberately avoided this book for a long time.  I get nervous about the "big book of the month" and it just didn't intrigue me.  That all changed though when a fellow blogger (Julie) mentioned it as a possible reading selection.  I hadn't thought about it in a long time but suddenly the recap that specifically mentioned a woman with very different political views than her husband, whose career revolved around those ideals.  As you know, I'm a liberal pacifist who fell totally in love with a conservative military guy.  I ordered it even before it "won" the vote on Julie's site.

Sittenfeld admits the book takes the life of Laura Bush as its starting point (and I'm saying more about plot points b/c they have not been held secret).  She suggests it is all fiction, just with big mileposts that are the same as the former First Lady, and I'm in no position to judge how much it overlaps in terms of personality etc.  Alice is a young woman growing up in Wisconsin.  She has some liberal tendencies and some family issues, but she's a pretty typical teen until a car accident where she is driving results in the death of a classmate.  Alice ends up leaving town for college, pursuing a library/education career, and eventually ends up (in her early 30s) meeting a man from a well-known family who has some political ambitions.  They marry fast, have a child, and the book follows them as Alice adjusts to (and is somewhat uncomfortable in) a posh suburban lifestyle with a very challenging extended family.  After a bout with drinking and questionable behavior, her husband becomes very religious and grows professionally as he moves from the family business to owning a baseball team to serving as Governor and later President.  Through it all, Alice questions how she can be so in love with him and yet disagree with so much of what he stands for as their different political views becomes more prominent.

I enjoyed this book.  I'm giving it 3.5 stars but easily rounding up to 4.  It wasn't great literature, but a fun "guilty pleasure" read.  I liked watching Alice adjust to her changing surroundings and seeing her try to feel okay living a country-club life while her heart was often tugged by stories of those less fortunate.  The vast majority of the book is set in their pre-White House years and I would have liked a bit more about her adjustment to life in such a unique environment.  I appreciated that Alice fought to balance being a supportive partner with her own beliefs and related to the struggle to understand how to retain her own views while her spouse pursued a career that had some very different underpinnings. 

Recommended as an easy and fun read that is someplace between "chick lit" (which I totally think has its time and place) and "serious fiction"....though probably much more of a woman's read than a man's.
I'd never heard the story of Pope Joan prior to picking up this book.  I really haven't done any research, beyond reading the notes at the end of the novel's text, so I can't comment on how likely it is that a woman held the papacy for a brief period in the 800s.  The author suggests evidence does favor the existence of a female pope and a later attempt to cover-up the embarrassment.  She also includes many events that are supported by the history books making it fit the historical fiction genre even if the ultimate storyline is not fully agreed upon,

In the ninth-century, "female" has a lot of negative context and women are expected to remain uneducated and to submit fully to the wills of fathers and husbands.  Joan bristles against authority from a young age, seeking out learning despite being harshly punished by her father for it (and blamed for the death of a much-beloved son).  Joan eventually escapes from her father and is able to attend school as a female while living with the family of Gerold, the only man that really stirs desire in Joan and one who supports her desire to learn.  As Joan's education is ending and she is facing the more traditional role of women in her time, a Viking attack provides her with an opportunity.  She assumes the identity of a slain brother and begins to live as a man.  This life takes her to a monastery, a life as a healer, and, eventually (as the title tells you so I'm not considering it a spoiler), the papacy. 

I enjoyed this very much.  I thought the author did a great job showing that the decision to live as a man did open doors for Joan (aka John) but also came at some sacrifice.  While the time period worked against Joan in many ways, the dislike of the body meant it was usually pretty easy for Joan to keep her secret and there are only a few times when her sex is close to being revealed.  In general, Joan enjoys life as a man but she clearly feels limited in her ability to push for things, such as schooling for girls, that were contrary to the beliefs of her day.  There is also a love story weaved in.  It is not the focus of the book but it does give Joan pause and makes her question what her heart wants and whether the sacrifices are worthwhile.  I didn't always care for some of the battle stories but they were in place and necessary.  It moves at a good pace and I was able to buy into the times when a lot of lucky coincidence saves Joan's secret and her life. 

I'd recommend this book to folks intrigued by secrets and by life in a very different time.  I am not a history buff but I am interested in "everyday life" in different eras....this book had both.  I expect more women will pick it up, but I do think it can hold appeal for both genders.

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