Reviewed by Jen Vafidis
By Ann Beattie
Scribner, 304 p.
Ann Beattie’s latest novel Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines A Life is not a biography, despite the helpful chronology of Patricia Nixon’s life in the back of the book. It’s not a novel either. There’s no plot beyond what is proposed in the subtitle. And it’s not a memoir; Beattie’s one encounter with Mrs. Nixon is entirely fictional. So what can we look forward to in the latest Ann Beattie? I think I was hoping for well-observed and professionalized fan fiction about the wife of the GOP’s biggest pre-00s disgrace. But this is not that kind of book, at least not totally. Beattie also pontificates at length about fiction in short story analyses designed to parallel the art of constructing a political and personal image. It’s hard, in other words, to read Mrs. Nixon with expectations of any kind, and it’s a hard book to like if a look inside Ann Beattie’s mind is not the only thing you want from the premise. The subtitle gets it exactly right: this is a book about Ann Beattie, not Pat Nixon. The book is meaty enough to warrant discussion, albeit a frustrated one on my part. Moments of real humor and warmth exist, but they’re overshadowed by a Boomer-specific insularity, thrown into view by the obsession with the era and its political bogeymen, that threatens the professed goal of imagining another person’s life. The experiment from the outset seems doomed.
When painted in Beattie’s broad strokes, Richard Nixon as seen by his wife doesn’t get to be particularly interesting. She assumes — probably rightfully — that Pat was not a part of the wonky aspects of his presidency, just the superficial moments. This absence feels like a lost opportunity to me and perhaps to Beattie, too. It also seems to be her argument for reducing complex people. Beattie depicts a woman confined to her place in the world and a man at odds with everyone. The former idea gets insulting really quickly, and the latter would need more focus to be less of a Nixonian cliche, a focus which would defeat the whole purpose of looking at Pat instead of Dick. By Beattie’s own rules of fiction, she’s giving us subject matter that falls short, and this tension is not enjoyable. For example, one chapter wherein Dick and Pat, rapping at death’s door, discuss keeping a stray dog: the former president begins to ramble about all sorts of things. The scene is like a grandchild imagining what her grandparents talk like while focusing only on the drama of senility. This might be the right instinct for a realistic depiction, but it’s not thrilling reading from a novelist wishing to give the insight of fiction, a point which even Beattie makes herself. Like she says, we expect more from stories that aren’t true.
A similarly one-dimensional moment occurs in inner monologues meant to give us the Nixons’ opinions of anti-war protesters. President Nixon is confident (and compelling in a lawyerly way, to be honest), urging protesters to think more like him. But Pat seems idiotic and folksy, wondering limply about these people’s patriotism. This is exemplary. When Beattie points out anything that complicates the image of an unknowingly oppressed conservative woman (e.g. her support for Roe v. Wade), these contradictions are meant to amuse and not illustrate. They take center stage in very few of the chapters from Mrs. Nixon’s point of view. One particular monologue gives Mrs. Nixon the audacity to want to read a feminist reading of A Doll’s House, and the whole chapter reads tonally like a pat on the back, from author to muse. Good job, Pat! You managed to surprise us! For the most part Beattie assumes — and maybe rightfully, but god, I doubt it — that the most crucial parts of Pat Nixon’s inner life were thoughts on looking right for the part, being her husband’s wife, and taking care of her children. Beattie’s sympathy for this attitude gives the book a pitying tone that I found uncomfortably condescending at some points and drippily dull at others. Surely there are sharper points to be made about this woman, bigger thoughts to reconstruct, and stronger impulses to emphasize.
Beattie admits to an unknowable quality in the former First Lady, so we don’t get to know the real Mrs. Nixon. But more importantly, we also don’t get to know a fake and fascinating Mrs. Nixon, which somewhat negates the authority Beattie assumes in telling us how good writing gets done. Then again, there is also a vignette featuring imagined hate mail from people who sound like me, criticizing the novelist as she has her fun — all of which takes the wind out of my sails, quite frankly. Insulting a person who anticipates your insult feels a little bit like a retaliatory throw in a food fight. You can hate her now, but she won’t stop now, so what’s the point? There isn’t much point. Unless this line of thought was the point. I’m still not sure.