'Mrs. Nixon,' An Unexpected Gift

Alan Cheuse reviews a new book from Ann Beattie. Mrs. Nixon tells the story of an author as she tackles the challenge of writing a biography of former first lady Pat Nixon. Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, a book that attempts to shed some light on the life of Richard Nixon's wife, Pat Nixon. It's by writer, Ann Beattie, who is known not as a biographer, but as one of the country's finest writers of short fiction. "Mrs. Nixon" is told from the perspective of a writer wanting to write a book about the former first lady.

Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: There's a very short chapter a little more than halfway through Ann Beattie's new book. The chapter is called "Questions" and here it is in its entirety.

A friend - we're at a sea restaurant, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, June 2007. Do you identify with Mrs. Nixon? My mother in the nursing home, 2008. Are you kidding? Sales clerk, Lyrical Ballad Book Store, Saratoga Springs, New York, July 2007. Some Life magazines, huh? Look at that. Tricia Nixon Cox on the cover in her bridal dress. You know, I saw Mrs. Nixon once in Washington at the Kennedy Center. She was so thin. Long pause. It wasn't her fault.

Beattie wasn't kidding. She muses for a couple of hundred pages on the craft of composing a fictional biography of Pat Nixon, who was, as the publicity for the book would have it, the only modern first lady who never wrote a memoir. Beattie, having done a good bit of research, tries to do this memoir for her, using both fictional techniques and factual material.

The result is a book that's neither fiction nor biography, but rather a fascinating book length look at the writer in her workshop trying to complete Pat Nixon's project for her. There's a brilliant chapter on the craft of dialog construction and a number of suggestive short takes on Pat Nixon's life, though oddly enough, the least successful chapter seemed to my ear to be the speculative sequences in which Beattie, finding gaps in the biographical material, creates brief, fictional sequences about Mrs. Nixon.

But the book remains much more of a writing lesson than a history lesson as the odd couple, Mr. and Mrs. Nixon, fade into the Netherlands of history, Beattie's fans will gather about the pages of this fascinating book about how to, or how not to, write about the Nixons or anyone.

SIEGEL: The book is "Mrs. Nixon" by Ann Beattie. Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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