Monday, January 5, 2009

Swimming in a Sea of Fiction . . . American Wife, The 19th Wife, and More

In the last week or so, I've plowed through both American Wife and The 19th Wife. In retrospect, my holiday reading shows an unintentional trend, although the experiences of the wives featured in these two novels couldn't be more different. One is a fictionalized account of First Lady Laura Bush; the other is a fictionalized account of polygamous Mormon leader Brigham Young's 19th wife, Ann Eliza Dee Young.

As with Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld gives readers a glimpse of the rarefied world of the very wealthy in American Wife. Although it's interesting in a voyeuristic sense, I just don't get the premise of this book. American Wife is fiction, but it's plainly about Laura and George Bush, "disguised" as the Blackwells (oil, get it?). The author capitalizes and riffs on these living public figures, filling in the blanks and missing pieces to make a story. Is this a new breed of fiction? Or just misinformation? Is it art for a writer to fill in the gaps of a living person's life? Or is it just defamation? I don't know, and I can't get comfortable with it.

The 19th Wife is part modern-day detective novel, part fictionalized account of Brigham Young's rebellious 19th wife, Ann Eliza Dee Young. It's got some structural problems--the author's trying to fit a lot of parts into this book--but still a very interesting read, especially for those who remember the governmental raid on a polygamist compound in Texas last year. The novel is essentially the author's polemic against "celestial marriage," as polygamy is euphemistically called, because of the damage it does to the women and children who live in polygamous compounds, including the young girls who are coerced into early plural marriages and the boys who are excommunicated and cut off from any family contact for the slightest infraction of community rules. The 19th Wife does a good job of showcasing how twisted religion can get.

Now I'm onto the The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize (this almost guarantees I will hate it), although I've been temporarily waylaid by a collection of Truman Captote's short stories a friend recently gave me. Plus, I'm reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret with Boy Wonder.

I am truly awash in fiction.

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