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Haunting novel about a familiar First Lady

By STEVE BENNETT San Antonio Express-News American Wife By Curtis Sittenfeld Random House, $26

In the fall of 1963, Alice, a small-town high school senior, dresses in ``a blue felt skirt and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar,'' spritzes herself with a hint of ``lily-of-the-valley perfume,'' borrows the family sedan and drives off to a back-to-school party at a classmate's house out in the country.

She dares to daydream about Andrew Imhof, a boy upon whom she has a crush. But Alice is a good girl, maybe even a ``goody goody,'' and she plans to respect her 11 o'clock curfew.

But, as they say in old black-and-white driver's ed films, Alice never makes it to the party.

Breezing through an intersection on Farm Road 177, she collides with ``a blur of pale metal,'' which she later learns is the Thunderbird piloted by Andrew Imhof. His neck is broken; he is dead at the scene. Alice is treated and released by the ER.

This pivotal moment, which mirrors a tragic event in the life of 17-year-old Laura Welch, who later became Laura Bush, occurs early in ``American Wife,'' the new novel from ``Prep'' author Curtis Sittenfeld.

Based on the lives of current occupants of the White House, it is an impressive work of the imagination, narrated in a steady voice that seems to perfectly capture the calm demeanor of the first lady. The book's power is in Sittenfeld's ability to put herself in the driver's seat, so to speak, to reveal her protagonist's humanity and engage our sympathies.

``How would you feel if you killed another person?'' Alice asks rhetorically. Wisely, Sittenfeld, who grew up in Cincinnati, moves the location of the early chapters _ by far the most compelling _ to Wisconsin and doesn't try to impress us with a Texas twang.

Instead of oil, the Blackwell family, a big brood of privileged achievers, is in the meat business. And instead of the Rangers, Charlie, the black sheep of the Blackwells, buys a piece of the Milwaukee Brewers.

But the path stones of the Bushes' life together are here: the drinking and carousing, ending abruptly when Alice issues an ultimatum; her husband's come-to-Jesus ephiphany, which leads to a governorship and ultimately the narrow presidential victory; the acts of terror, the war, the long slide home.

The book opens in 1954 during Alice/Laura's girlhood, intricately wrought in Sittenfeld's precise, delicate prose. Certain qualities are quickly established: Alice is well-behaved, bookish, self-effacing (even self-denying, self-punishing).

``In the house I grew up in, we were four: my grandmother, my parents, and me. On my father's side, I was a third-generation only child, which was greatly unusual in those days. While I certainly would have liked a sibling, I knew from an early age not to mention it _ my mother had miscarried twice by the time I was in first grade . . . Though the miscarriages weighted my parents with a quiet sadness, our family as it was seemed evenly balanced.''

Alice doesn't dwell on things, which is both a cause and effect of her inner toughness, except for the accident, which haunts her throughout her life. She dreams of Andrew almost every night. It is only when she meets Charlie, a gregarious, somewhat crude rich boy in search of his ``legacy,'' that Alice begins, as she puts it, to ``lead a life in opposition to itself.''

This is the source of our Alice _ empathy. Her life would have followed such a different route if she hadn't taken Farm Road 177 that fateful night.

If she had continued down the spinster librarian lane that she was happily traveling before the future president entered her life, she imagines, sitting in a limousine surrounded by aides and agents, ``I might have begun, at the age of forty or so, to take in foster children, and not necessarily white ones; I'd compost, and perhaps by now I'd have purchased a Prius, though I still don't think I'd have affixed an antiwar bumper sticker to it.''

That the first lady faces a scandal, one stemming from a personal crisis in her past (not the accident, but related to it), makes her seem less symbolic, more human, especially when she handles it courageously. She exhibits the same lack of self-regard, of veering from the political script, in dealing with a Cindy Sheehan-type character, a black ex-military man whose son was killed in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, our sneaking admiration doesn't extend to the president, whom Sittenfeld sketches in quick brush strokes. As president, Charlie is still Charlie.

He gets up in the morning, retrieves the newspapers from a valet _ and delivers them to his wife for summary and reaction: ``He whistles as he approaches _ he's whistling `Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah' . . .''

``Being president is for him like taking a ninth-grade English test on `The Odyssey,' and he's the kid who did most of the reading, he studied for an hour the night before, but he's not one of the people who loved the book.''

``American Wife'' is a novel that haunts because it forces readers to recall those crossroads in their own lives and wonder, as some wonder about the 2000 election, what life might have been like.