Review: Spoken from the heart by Laura bush
Simon & Schuster, €23.75
Published 22/05/2010 | 05:00
It's a cliché that life mirrors art and with less structure, but it's somewhat more unusual for autobiography to mirror fiction, and to pale beside it.
Laura Bush's anodyne memoir serves mainly to highlight the wit, prescience and insight of Curtis Sittenfeld's novel American Wife (2008), which told the story of a fictional First Lady closely modelled on Mrs Bush, but gave her a slightly sensational past (an abortion, a near-affair, a facelift), a nuanced moral sense and sophisticated psychological insight about her marriage. Sittenfeld's heroine, Alice Blackwell, is a realist who begins by asking herself if she has made "terrible mistakes".
In contrast, Bush's account of her life before and after George W is cautious, pleasantly soporific, sweetly uncontroversial and untroubled by self-doubt. Pretty, motherly, modestly dressed, conscientious about her duties, unswervingly loyal to her husband, Laura Bush was a popular First Lady, who escaped the anger, derision and low approval ratings bestowed on the president. As her autobiography shows, she has a knack for seizing the inoffensive feminine middle ground.
She is concerned about the oppression of Afghan women and a supporter of women's rights, but isn't a feminist and has no views on abortion; she likes holidays and Christmas cards but is not very religious; she likes to read and teach, but is not an intellectual; she has some initial troubles with her "ferociously tart-tongued mother-in-law", but grows to love her.
Although she presents herself as a voracious reader, Bush doesn't mention Sittenfeld's novel. But she doesn't mention any other contemporary writers either; maybe it's safer for a First Lady to praise a few American classics like Twain and Dickinson and not risk offence by naming a favourite living writer or a particular book.
She mentions books and writers often, but always when she is talking about literacy, education and White House literary events. Unlike most bookish people, she is never reminded of a fictional situation or poem as she goes about her daily life.
But books figure large in the structure of this memoir because Bush's main cultural legacy is the National Book Festival, which she started in 2001.
During her husband's years as governor of Texas, Laura Bush began a well-liked book festival, drawing on Texas friends from Larry McMurtry to Kinky Friedman.
In Washington, these friends also helped her begin a large, free, outdoor book festival on the Mall, where mystery writers, children's writers, biographers, historians and poets signed their books and greeted their fans. Unfortunately, the years during which the White House hosted this event were also a time of bitter opposition to the Iraq War and to the policies of the Bush administration.
The festivals did not attract the most prominent American writers, and, in 2003, a White House symposium on American poetry had to be cancelled when a large number of poets signed an anti-war letter.
Her thoughts about this event, and her very indirect allusion to the intransigence of other writers who turned down invitations to the White House, are typical of her response to dissent.
She sees the protest as the rude result of the poets' "stereotyping" and closed minds, their elitist rejection of American conservatism and their snobbish dismissal of her Texas literary credentials, rather than as principled opposition to government policies and a refusal to be culturally co-opted by the White House.
Similarly, throughout the book she criticises bad manners -- New York Times reporters who ask impertinent questions, opponents who publicly mention awkward truths about candidates' children -- rather than convictions or positions.
She herself plays down family problems, like George W's drinking and Barbara Bush's harsh tongue, and never wavers in her support for her husband's colleagues (including "funny and warm" Karl Rove) or his decisions, from the Iraq War to Hurricane Katrina to the economy.
But it's impossible to dislike someone just so darn nice and normal as Laura Bush. She admits that her feet hurt during the inaugurations, keeps up with her Texas girlfriends and dashes up to Yale to help her daughter Barbara move into a new dorm room. She puts up uncomplainingly with heat, humidity, constricting clothes, elaborate protocol and boring small-talk, and gently reproves people who don't keep their promises.
She emphasises her efforts to support "women's rights and human rights around the globe", education and health care for Aids and breast cancer sufferers. Indeed, as First Lady, Bush travelled to 75 countries in eight years.
With the help of Lyric Winik, the journalist who helped her "put my story into words", Bush gives a detailed description of these trips, and describes her book as the "definitive source" on her travel schedule. If this lengthy part of the memoir is about as colourless and undifferentiated as her two-week, 10-country European tour when she graduated, it's because she doesn't want to seem ungrateful, incurious, opinionated or narrowly American.
In the early part of the memoir, before she meets George W, Laura Bush is a great deal more personal, open and engaging.
She reveals her guilt over the car accident in 1963 when, as a new driver, she tragically killed a high-school friend. She describes her difficulties having children and her regrets that she could not have had more, and her love for dusty, plain-spoken Texas.
But make no mistake; this is a calculated and highly controlled autobiography, spoken from the heart, maybe, but more accurately titled 'written from the Head'.
Elaine Showalter's latest book is A Jury of Her Peers (Virago)