Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life

Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life

by Ann Beattie
     
 

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Dazzlingly original, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon is a riveting exploration of an elusive American icon and of the fiction writer’s art.

Pat Nixon remains one of our most mysterious and intriguing public figures, the only modern First Lady who never wrote a memoir. Beattie, like many of her generation, dismissed Richard Nixon’s

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Overview

Dazzlingly original, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon is a riveting exploration of an elusive American icon and of the fiction writer’s art.

Pat Nixon remains one of our most mysterious and intriguing public figures, the only modern First Lady who never wrote a memoir. Beattie, like many of her generation, dismissed Richard Nixon’s wife: “interchangeable with a Martian,” she said. Decades later, she wonders what it must have been like to be married to such a spectacularly ambitious and catastrophically self-destructive man.

Drawing on a wealth of sources from Life magazine to accounts by Nixon’s daughter and his doctor to The Haldeman Diaries and Jonathan Schell’s The Time of Illusion, Beattie reconstructs dozens of scenes in an attempt to see the world from Mrs. Nixon’s point of view. Like Stephen King’s On Writing, this fascinating and intimate account offers readers a rare glimpse into the imagination of a writer.

Beattie, whose fiction Vanity Fair calls “irony-laced reports from the front line of the baby boomers’ war with themselves,” packs insight and humor into her examination of the First Couple with whom boomers came of age. Mrs. Nixon is a startlingly compelling and revelatory work.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.
From the Publisher
“Beattie has created a resplendent paean to the pleasures of the literary imagination , and a riveting and mischievous, revealing and revitalizing portrait of an overlooked woman.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
Library Journal
Short story writer and novelist Beattie (Chilly Scenes of Winter) here turns her attention to Pat Nixon. She incorporates interesting historical information, but her asides on narrator reliability, her comments about how she might change events if she could take part in the story, and her lengthy references to other works all will make readers acutely aware that this is a novelist's take on Mrs. Nixon's life, rather than a true biography. Beattie's comment, mid-book, that "writers tend to love people who volunteer very little, for their silence frees them to project onto them, though such characters are also confusing" is unfortunately true of this confusing work as a whole. Mrs. Nixon's actual historical silence makes her a good canvas for Beattie's questions and theories, but the reader is left with a baffling and incomplete portrait. VERDICT Although Beattie clearly did research, this is not a biography. Nor is it entirely fiction. Nor is it literary criticism, as the publisher's advance copy categorizes it. In other words, it's easy to say what it is not, but as to what it is, readers are certain to be left uncertain. Beattie's real strengths are not evident here. For Beattie completists only.—Crystal Goldman, San José State Univ. Lib., CA
Kirkus Reviews

Best known for her short fiction (The New Yorker Stories, 2010, etc.), Beattie circles around an enigmatic First Lady in an odd text that takes a lit-crit approach to a biographical subject.

The subject is Pat Nixon, the model political wife who stood silently by her husband during such humiliating episodes as Richard Nixon's "Checkers speech" and his resignation in disgrace after the Watergate scandal. Beattie conveys considerable factual information: Mrs. Nixon's birth name was Thelma; both parents were dead by the time she was 18; she acted in amateur theater and briefly considered a career in movies; she hesitated a long time before marrying Nixon; she didn't much like his being in politics; she advised him to destroy the tapes of his conversations about Watergate. The author's real interest, however, is trying to get inside the head of a woman who never wrote a memoir and kept her public comments as innocuous as possible. To this end, Beattie examines specific aspects of Pat Nixon's life and character through the lens of various short stories. Raymond Carver's deadpan tone in "Are These Actual Miles?" spurs her to see more than banality in 12-year-old Thelma's conventional remark about her mother's corpse looking beautiful. Chekhov's "The Lady with the Little Dog" shapes her view of Pat and Dick's courtship. A few bravura passages validate this approach, and a marvelous chapter entitled "The Writer's Feet Beneath the Curtain" suggests that Beattie, a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Virginia, must be a terrific teacher. She fails to convince, however, that fictional techniques are more than tangentially revealing of Pat Nixon's inner life, and chapters purporting to be narrated by the First Lady are similarly unpersuasive. There's a whiff of condescension about the whole enterprise, and when a chapter describing "My Meeting with Mrs. Nixon" [p134] is immediately followed by one titled "I Didn't Meet Her," readers may well feel that Pat isn't the only one being patronized here.

Self-indulgent though fitfully intriguing.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781439168714
Publisher:
Scribner
Publication date:
11/15/2011
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.34(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mrs. Nixon


  • In The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss has described a TV broadcast during which Mr. Nixon faced some hard questions about his stance on Vietnam. After the show ended, “Roger Ailes went looking for Nixon. He wound up in an elevator with Nixon’s wife. She was wearing a green dress and she did not smile. One thought of the remark a member of Nixon’s staff had made: ‘Next to her, RN looks like Mary Poppins.’

    “ ‘Hello, Mrs. Nixon,’ Roger Ailes said.

    “She nodded. She had known him for months.

    “ ‘How did you like the show?’ he asked.

    “She nodded very slowly; her mouth was drawn in a thin, straight line.

    “ ‘Everyone seems to think it was by far the best,’ Ailes said. ‘Especially the way he took care of that McKinney.’

    “Pat Nixon stared at the elevator door. The car stopped. The door opened. She got off and moved down a hallway with the Secret Service men around her.”

    Her possible thoughts?

    Mr. Ailes is a loyal supporter, but these people can be a bit naïve.

    Or: It pleases Mr. Ailes very much to think he’s found the way to elicit a positive response from me. Why should I comply just to please him?

    Perhaps: “Mr. Ailes, has it ever occurred to you that I’m a serious person, and that the conclusions you have drawn with such certainty are expedient and self-serving?”

    “If I were a vain woman I might turn the subject to myself—the same way, by being so outspoken, you turn the subject as much to yourself as to my husband. And so I might ask you whether you didn’t think this was the dandiest dress you’d seen in a long time, and whether we shouldn’t applaud: for my husband; for the advent of television; for your job; for my dress, which I tailored myself. What do you say, Dr. Pangloss?”

    “Mr. Ailes, do you find it possible to think that yes, I am Mrs. Nixon, but I am also a woman on her way somewhere, that I am just passing through in a perfunctory way, and that even if I were to answer, whatever I say does not really matter?”

    Better: “Will you remember tomorrow, Mr. Ailes, that when we spoke I was wearing a green dress? I will certainly remember that you were wearing a white shirt, because you don’t have as much leeway as I do, or the freedom most any woman does, about how to dress.”

    “Forgive me for not answering, but the truth is that I am thinking about my own neatly styled hair and clothing. I don’t have to say a word, but you more or less have to say something to me, don’t you? So why not admire the dress I bought at Lord & Taylor and paid too much for, instead of pretending my husband is the only topic of interest. If you liked it, I might think better of you.”

    “Oh, excuse me, I would so love to stay and discuss this, but you see, I brought my pet tortoise with me and it has run away, and I must try to find it before it buries itself in the dirt that is our lives.”

    “Mr. Ailes, I may very well have forgotten to turn off the bathwater.”

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  • Meet the Author

    Ann Beattie has been included in four O. Henry Award Collections, in John Updike’s The Best American Short Stories of the Century, and in Jennifer Egan’s The Best American Short Stories 2014. In 2000, she received the PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in the short story. In 2005, she received the Rea Award for the Short Story. She was the Edgar Allan Poe Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She is a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She and her husband, Lincoln Perry, live in Maine and Key West, Florida.

    Brief Biography

    Hometown:
    Maine and Key West, Florida
    Date of Birth:
    September 8, 1947
    Place of Birth:
    Washington, D.C.
    Education:
    B.A., American University, 1969; M.A., University of Connecticut, 1970

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