By tackling the subject of the iconic and elusive Mrs. Nixon, Ann Beattie has chosen an almost insurmountable task. The unknown and unknowable wife of Richard Nixon was a woman defined by the times and by her family history. She had learned early on to present a façade to the world and especially upon taking on the role of public figure. Her brief experience in acting, as a young person, may have best prepared her for this choice.
Beattie’s work is a pursuit toward understanding the woman behind the public image. I don’t know that she accomplished that in this book, but she did raise a number of questions, and she certainly explored the task of a writer, and how fictionalized versions of known people are uniquely challenging.
Toward the end, she welcomes us onto her porch in Maine, and then gives us a few snippets to ponder:
“Public figures are easy, because they’re on display. You have to catch them in a private moment to really know something. To know Mrs. Nixon in her early days on the farm, and then as a college student in California, as someone on the campaign trail, in the White House, behind the walls of La Casa Pacifica, in New York City, and in Saddle River, N.J., would of course reveal different Mrs. Nixons. We’re all changed by time and context.”
“Mrs. Nixon didn’t make it easy for a writer to write about her—nor was that any obligation….Occasionally a photograph betrayed her true emotions, but she did not confirm or deny what anyone perceived. She didn’t let us have a lot of information through words…It seems obvious to me now that she puzzled herself…To overcome misfortune, Mrs. Nixon became a person who would try things, and would persevere–quite possibly, it was a mode on which she overrelied….
Parts of the book were tedious to me, and somewhat confusing, in that they were presented as if they were fact, and then they turned out to be imaginings. A clever device, but it did halt my progress and occasionally frustrate me. I’m giving this book three stars. However, for the truly fascinated student of this iconic woman, I would recommend muddling through.