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.