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.
Starred Review. "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." - Booklist
"...strikingly original...both timely and unique...B+" - Entertainment Weekly
"Very clever...a meditation on writing..." - New York Journal of Books
"...fascinating...brilliant..." - NPR
"enchanting...gives us tantalizing glimpses of Nixon, and a fully realized account of fiction, fiction writing, and the fiction writer." - Boston Globe
"...splendidly tricky...Nothing in "Mrs. Nixon" is perfectly clear, and that is the source of its power." - San Francisco Chronicle
"...a fun, risky, thoughtful book..." - Barnes & Noble Review
"an immersive read, and the mix of fact and fiction, pensiveness and invention...simulate the complexity of human experience." - Washingtonian
"Beattie captures something familiar in Pat, making us care about her. That's the magic of the fiction writer..." - Chron
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
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.