cover image Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life

Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life

Ann Beattie. Scribner, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4391-6871-4

Reviewed by Jessamine Chan.

Celebrated short story writer Beattie (The New Yorker Stories) juxtaposes a master class on writing fiction with fiction itself. Billed as a meditation on one of the most elusive first ladies in recent history, the book opens with an innocuous list of nicknames for Pat Nixon, née Thelma Ryan. How did she become President Richard Nixon’s beloved “Buddy”? Or rather, in what proves to be the book’s central question: why did she choose to marry “RN,” the man whose “self-created tragedy” determined her fate?

To answer this question, while acknowledging its inherent difficulty, Beattie mixes reflections on Pat Nixon’s life, works of literature, and the creative process with short passages written from the perspectives of Mrs. Nixon, President Nixon, and even their son-in-law David Eisenhower, calling upon such texts as Jonathan Schell’s The Time of Illusion to provide a factual foundation. Though she professes not to identify with Pat Nixon, Beattie admits: “I sensed that she was something my mother might have become, if not for fate. If you married a man and that man became something else, it could trap a woman.... A lot of people liked her, but something seemed wrong because she was married to him.”

In the book’s most inspired chapters, Beattie pairs the Nixons’ love story with those from great works of literature, including Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” and Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.” And in an experiment that few (besides Beattie) would dream up, she even funnels her subject’s voice through a series of Oulipo language games. Beattie knowingly anticipates reader skepticism, even writing some imaginary letters: “‘You obviously do not know the real Mrs. Nixon. I notice that your thoughts on her were not printed in The New Yorker.’” She thoughtfully analyzes works by a diverse range of authors—Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, and William Trevor, to name just a few—and cheerfully pulls back the curtain on the unglamorous, compulsive nature of a writer’s life. Fellow practitioners will especially enjoy her list of truths about writers: finding a copy of Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is akin to discovering a baby on the front step—they can’t abandon it no matter how many copies they already own; writers wear only mismatched, shamefully tattered clothing while they work.

Despite Beattie’s accessible, engaging tone, the book’s biggest challenge is negotiating its shifts to fiction, since it is, after all, difficult for fiction to seem effortless when so many nonfiction chapters are about effort. After getting lost in the erudite charm of Beattie’s own voice, sections written in Pat Nixon’s voice feel almost quaint, arch without accompanying vulnerability, and containing little of the human mess and propensity for error that makes Beattie’s stories feel alive. Still, it is obvious how much fun Beattie is having with this project—an ideal book for readers who want to understand process as much as product. (Nov.)

Jessamine Chan is a Reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.