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A Novelist Imagines a Life

A-Mrs-Nixon-1Ann Beattie captured the zeitgeist of upper-middle-class baby boomers in her novels and, more notably, in her groundbreaking short fiction that began to appear in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly in the 1960s. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia. Reviewed: The New Yorker Stories (3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2011), Walks With Men (3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2010), Follies (3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2005).

The Story: Ann Beattie calls former First Lady Pat Nixon "a person I would have done anything to avoid--to the extent she was even part of my consciousness," and yet, she claims, Pat's very inscrutability makes her an enticing subject for the novelist's imagination. In more than 60 scenes, Beattie reimagines her life--as an opaque American icon, as a paragon of wifely virtues, as a lonely, suffering wife. Each scene reflects a mood, a time, and a voice. In one vignette, Mrs. Nixon's daughter shares her mother's experiences working in a department store; in another, Pat gives her suitor (none other than the infamous Mr. Nixon) books by Karl Marx and Guy de Maupassant. Other scenes involve a visit by Elvis Presley, an imagined baking session between Pat Nixon and Hillary Clinton, a list of Mrs. Nixon's nicknames, and comparisons to various literary creations. In situating Nixon amid such array, Beattie also explores the art of fiction.
Scribner. 282 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781439168714

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars"The most compelling sections read like literary criticism, as Beattie compares Nixon to the protagonists in The Great Gatsby and The Glass Menagerie, interpreting her story as if it were somebody's Great American Tragedy--which, in some ways, it was. At times, the real insights about Nixon get lost in too much cleverness, with the First Lady feeling like a prop in a writing exercise." Melissa Maerz

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars"Drawing from techniques of her favorite authors, including Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme, she analyzes the writer's craft. This part of the book connects the reader to Beattie in a powerful way. You feel transported to her university writing class, and for many readers these meditations on the creative process will be the book's high points." Barbara Liss

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars"Those seeking a richly imagined life of a first lady, with emotions and details and a story that moves forward from chapter to chapter, should look elsewhere. ... Where there might be exploration, there is pontification. What might be confidence starts to come across as careless blitheness." Carolyn Kellogg

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars"And yet, for all her psychological prowling, she never quite makes Pat Nixon come alive the way she so deftly does with her fictional creations. ... Pat Nixon is ultimately too weak a character to consistently divert our focus from her endlessly fascinating husband." David Greenberg

Washington Post 1 of 5 Stars"By Page 5, a good number of Beattie's writing friends have crowded in with her. By Page 6, we're reading about pet names that Beattie's husband likes to call his wife. ... What happened to story?" Marie Arana

Wall Street Journal 0.5 of 5 Stars"I only wish that the author had explored her subject with more seriousness and tried to understand the real person still hiding in plain sight. ... Mrs. Nixon offers a few tantalizing glimmers of its subject but never rises above its postmodern playfulness or the personal disdain that Ms. Beattie obviously feels for anyone associated with Richard Nixon, including his wife, who deserves better." Frank Gannon

Oregonian 0.5 of 5 Stars"Sometimes Beattie makes some tenuous connection between a favorite work of fiction and the late first lady's life. ... Mostly, though, her observations about specific novels, plays and short stories are total non sequiturs. The result is a book that doesn't add up to anything." Douglas Perry

Critical Summary

How critics rated Mrs. Nixon depended on their wider interests. Those fascinated by Beattie's literary observations (she closely reads Raymond Carver, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Gish Jen, and others) felt that Pat Nixon got in the way of a larger lesson about the writer's craft. Those, however, who wished to learn more about Pat--and this was the majority of reviewers--felt frustrated by Beattie's literary "asides" and metafictional approach to her life. "Not exactly fiction and not exactly literary criticism" is how the Houston Chronicle put it, and Beattie's inability to adhere to a genre generally baffled reviewers. A few scenes stuck in reviewers' minds--the last family photographs taken before Nixon's resignation, for example--but more often than not, Pat's blundering husband overwhelms her character. In the end, Mrs. Nixon is simply too hodgepodge a novel to recommend.