I used to know a wonderful, as-yet unpublished writer who had graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop in the same class as Curtis Sittenfeld. A look would pass over my writer-friend’s face if Ms. Sittenfeld was mentioned, a look that is hard to describe. Two parts envy, one part pure venom, perhaps. Or, straight-up nausea? And I totally get why.
More than most other writers, Ms. Sittenfeld inspires incredible feelings of inadequacy. (I am only speaking for myself here? Maybe, although I think not.) She is quite young and has published three well-received novels. More than that, they actually sell. They are mass-market accessible, yet still smart and literary. And she makes it seem SO EASY.
I read her first novel, Prep, a few years ago, but I read her third, American Wife, and her second, The Man of My Dreams, in that order, in the past week. The fact that I read the second two books so quickly and in such quick succession might over-inflate my perception of Ms. Sittenfeld, but I came away from my marathon thinking of her as something of a speed-writing genius.
American Wife, the well-publicized fictionalized account of Laura Bush’s life, had me reading the way I used to when I was little–breathlessly turning pages, plowing ahead, curling up for uninterrupted hours. I think I have identified why. Ms. Sittenfeld writes books with plot. Things happen. American Wife has an epic quality, following Elizabeth Blackwell from her childhood to her husband’s second, disastrous term as President. The story is moving ahead the whole time because it has so much ground to cover. Except for a few points at the end, it didn’t feel rushed to me. I was too caught up in the story–sex, suspense, tragedy, love–to stop for a moment. Her language serves this purpose. She doesn’t write beautiful sentences–there are no stunners in there to slow readers down or take them out of the action. As a reader, I am most often drawn to language and beautiful sentences over plot, but Ms. Sittenfeld’s oeuvre is an exception. Because she doesn’t give me time to slow down and analyze, she allows me to read as a reader, instead of as a writer. Often reading can feel like work–pleasurable work, but work–for me because it is so inextricable from what I do. Ms. Sittenfeld’s books, though, can be pure escapism. (Until, of course, I sit down to write something like this. But all this thinking is happening after the fact, so I think it still counts!)
The Man of My Dreams was something of a letdown after American Wife. It was messier and not as meticulously constrcuted. It called to mind Zadie Smith’s second book–smaller in scale than her first or third, less publicized, often overlooked, but still pretty good. While Elizabeth started ordinary and ended extraordinary, Hannah of TMOMD starts and ends almost painfully ordinary. She recalled Lee of Prep–awkward, not very attractive, prone to making decisions that make life harder for her than it has to be. One particularly cringe-worthy moment occurs early one when she attends a house party with a new friend from college and her girlfriends. After an aborted attempt to talk to a boy, Hannah becomes overwhelmed and lays her head on the sofa, going to sleep in the middle of the party. She pretends not to hear what other people are saying around her, but the reader doesn’t have that luxury. We’re almost put in the place of one of the party guests, wondering what the hell is wrong with that weird girl in the corner. What I really liked about the novel, though–similar to what I liked about Prep–Ms. Sittenfeld will go there. She will force the reader to confront the terrible awkwardness of her characters and she will give her female characters serious flaws. Their bodily functions, the mortifying things they say or that are said about them, are right there on the page. It is a brave, straightforward kind of writing.
I can’t touch too much on Prep because I read it so long ago–on the beach in Mexico, in basically one go. I was prepared to dismiss it as fluff, but it’s much smarter than that and completely engrossing. If you want to embark on a Sittenfeld-binge, I would suggest reading it second, after American Wife. (The time to read that one is now, before you’ve managed to completely purge the Bush years from your memory).
An agent I met with once described to me her idea of literary fiction as humorless, hard-to-understand work that alienates the reader. Had I not been so dumbfounded, I would have recommended she seek out the first of Ms. Sittenfeld’s books she could find to start changing her mind.