Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life

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 ...

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Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life

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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
Library Journal
The penetrating and sometimes caustic Beattie, who defined a generation with her O. Henry- and PEN/Malamud Award-winning works, reimagines someone we've hardly thought about at all: Pat Nixon, wife of the hugely ambitious and hugely fallible President. Here's a book that, like Sebald's A Place in the Country (see p. 57), examines the imagination of the writer as much as the subject itself.
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)

Meet the Author

Ann  Beattie

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

Biography

After publishing several stories in The New Yorker, Ann Beattie burst on the literary scene in 1976 with not one, but two books -- a collection of short fiction entitled Distortions and a critically acclaimed debut novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Almost immediately, she was proclaimed the unofficial diarist of an entire generation, evoking the lives of feckless, young, middle-class baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s yet never really grew up, choosing instead to lug around their dashed expectations like so much excess baggage.

Indeed, Beattie's fiction is filled with such unhappy characters -- intelligent, well-educated people whose lives are steeped in disappointment and a vague sense of despair. Failed relationships, nostalgia for the past, and the inability to reconcile youthful idealism with the demands of adult life are recurring themes in short story collections like Secrets and Surprises (1978), What Was Mine (1991), and Park City (1998), as well as novels such as Falling in Place (1981), Love Always (1985), and Another You (1995).

Yet, Beattie vehemently denies that she set out to chronicle an era or to describe a particular demographic. ''I do not wish to be a spokesperson for my generation,'' she told The New York Times in 1985. She explained further (in the literary magazine Ploughshares) that she simply wrote about the people who surrounded her -- refugees from the '60s, bewildered by the real world and longing to return to the seductive counterculture of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

A writer of spare, elegant, whip-smart prose, Beattie has been classified as a minimalist, a label she rejects as reductive. In many ways, though, her writing fits the bill. Her stories, like those of minimalism's famous poster boy (and Beattie's good friend) Raymond Carver, are composed of simple, declarative sentences teeming with irony and finely observed detail; also like Carver, she is a nonjudgmental narrator, completely detached from her characters and their actions and meting out contextual clues to be interpreted by the reader. However, as she has matured as a writer, she has traded in strict minimalism for a more realistic style, endowing her characters with emotions (and something of an inner life!) and rendering her fiction more fully "human."

Occasionally, Beattie has come under attack for loading her stories with brand names and pop culture references. But even this use of "Kmart realism" seems not to have dimmed her light. Reviewing her 2008 anthology Follies for The New York Times, David Means had this to say: "[W]hen Beattie's work is clicking her stories are wonderful to behold. Her best work ... will endure long after so much of what we know now -- the brand names, television shows and quick-shop stores -- is gone."

Good To Know

Beattie's first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, was adapted into a film by Joan Micklin Silver starring John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt. It was first released in 1979 as Head Over Heels with an unsatisfying, tacked-on happy ending. Audiences were lukewarm. In 1982, the movie was re-released under the novel's title and with an ending that matched the book. This version was a success.

Beattie is married to the painter Lincoln Perry. In 2005 the two collaborated on a retrospective of Perry's paintings entitled Lincoln Perry's Charlottesville, boasting a long essay and interview by Beattie.

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

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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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 23, 2011

    A MUST-READ....RUN, DON'T WALK, TO BUY IT

    In this marvelous book, Ann Beattie has found a seemingly unlikely, but utterly perfect, subject in the wife of Richard Nixon. Perhaps only a fiction writer of Beattie's caliber could illuminate the life of this inscrutable figure, and do so in the most interesting and ingenious and captivating of ways. Mrs. Nixon is a book one needs to give one's self over to, completely, in order for it to be fully enjoyed. It will linger with you long after you put it down. Oddly enough, despite the many many wonderful books Ann Beattie has written over these many years, this brilliant, surprising work may be the one she will be most remembered for. That Beattie is a native of Washington DC only adds to its quirky allure.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 1, 2011

    Not Recommended!!

    A very disappointing book. If you want to learn about the life of Pat Nixon - Do Not Purchase book. If you want to learn how to write short stories - this book is for you.

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    Posted December 1, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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