In Ann Beattie’s 1974 short story “Wolf Dreams,” a woman staring down an impending marriage to a man she views with ambivalence channels her frustrations into a poison-pen letter to Richard Nixon. “Some girls in my office won’t write you because they say that’s crank mail… You’re the crank. You’ve got prices so high I can’t eat steak,” she fumes, closing out with “tell your wife she’s a stone face.” Nearly 40 years later, Beattie returns to flesh out the woman behind the enigmatic smile of the most private of all contemporary first ladies. Unlike any of Beattie’s previous works, Mrs. Nixon is a restless hybrid, composed of equal parts literary interpretation, impressionistic attempts to enter Pat Nixon’s headspace, and one-off exercises she’s never had the chance to indulge before. Oulipian experiments? F. Scott Fitzgerald pastiches? They’re all here, and while only half of the book really takes off, the short chapters and restless structure make it impossible to grow bored or irritated.
Exactly halfway through, Beattie offers up “My Meeting With Mrs. Nixon,” a 1969 run-in with Pat, her daughter Tricia, and the Secret Service while Beattie was shoe-shopping with her own mother. The encounter—eventually revealed as an imaginative exercise rather than a real memory—focuses on a moment of connection between Mrs. Nixon and Beattie’s mother: “We wore these in the forties, didn’t we?,” she envisions the president’s wife saying in a moment of generational connection. Mrs. Nixon, above all, offers up Pat Nixon as a stand-in for all the women who came of age before Beattie, and had their particular qualities drowned out by their spouses.
In a book ostensibly focused on Mrs. Nixon, there’s plenty of room for detours. For Beattie, Pat Nixon is “something my mother might have become”—her general likeability was perpetually compromised because “something seemed wrong because she was married to him.” Richard Nixon looms predictably large, and sometimes Beattie is sharp when addressing him, noting that “RN’s romantic notion of himself was that he was a realist. Mrs. Nixon seems to have known herself better.” But her manifest contempt for the 37th president can reach outsize proportions: Mulling over RN’s 1990s encounter with a trick-or-treater wearing a Nixon mask, she snipes that he “opened his door as someone whose expectations were not sensitized by having understood how fiction operates.” That doesn’t make sense. Why should Richard Milhous Nixon, career politician, have as good a grasp of Raymond Carver as his examiner does? Because Mrs. Nixon is as much about writing as it is about the title subject, and because Pat Nixon is an excuse for Beattie to wax lyrical on her craft, as she admits: “We can’t be conflated, but what happens in the space in between” is the sum total of the book.
In addition to Beattie’s literary analyses, there are refreshingly brief sketches, like a pagelong fantasia where Pat teaches a reluctant Hilary Clinton how to bake cookies. There are plenty of similarly unusual experiments from a writer whose freakish consistency of subject matter—the unexamined, oft-selfish mores of the baby-boomer generation in a perpetual post-’70s twilight of adultery, retreats to Vermont, disastrous dinner parties, and sad people listening to Bob Dylan albums—has often pegged her as a time-capsule reporter. Even when she’s failing, it’s nice to see her unexpectedly entering fresh terrain.