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Originally published Sunday, December 4, 2011 at 5:00 AM

Book review

'Mrs. Nixon': Stories, real and imagined, of an enigmatic first lady

Book review: Ann Beattie's book "Mrs. Nixon" is as much an examination of the art of storytelling as it is a portrait of Thelma Catherine "Pat" Nixon, the quietly enigmatic wife of President Nixon.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Mrs. Nixon'

by Ann Beattie

Scribner, 282 pp., $26

A grab bag of impressions of a seemingly inscrutable woman, Ann Beattie's "Mrs. Nixon" enticingly blends fact with fiction in examining the life and psyche of the former first lady. This book isn't a sibling to Curtis Sittenfeld's "American Wife" (a novel inspired by the life of Laura Bush); in fact it isn't a novel at all, but something less expected. Beattie, long acclaimed for her short stories (many of which were collected last year in "The New Yorker Stories"), here examines not only Thelma Catherine "Pat" Ryan Nixon, who died in 1993, but the art of storytelling itself.

Beattie reminds us, in a note that begins "Mrs. Nixon," that what we are about to read is based on research, and that the majority of events, names and letters in the book are real. And then off we go, into a collection of short bursts of reflection (they're not really chapters; more like thoughts large and small). Some are lists of Mrs. Nixon's childhood nicknames or quirky life events; others are first-person recollections from Mrs. Nixon's point of view, or fictional stories inspired by Mrs. Nixon or her husband.

In one passage, Beattie tells of meeting Mrs. Nixon long ago at a department store with her daughter Tricia, just as Beattie and her own mother were shopping for shoes. The two older women briefly bonded over a pair of shoes reminiscent of '40s fashions, and Mrs. Nixon was "almost giggly" as she encouraged Beattie to buy them.

And then, in the next chapter, Beattie pulls the narrative rug out from under us. Never forget, in "Mrs. Nixon," that we're in the hands of a storyteller. Much of the book is, in fact, a discussion of writing itself; many of its sections are scholarly yet completely accessible discussions of fiction, specifically on the creation of characters and dialogue. Beattie is currently a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Virginia; I suspect, from reading this book, that her classes are mesmerizing. In writing of Mrs. Nixon, she discusses the issue of predictable dialogue — much of what the former first lady is known to have said in public is less than fascinating — which, Beattie says, "makes us yearn for what we hear between the lines."

The "quietly loyal and enigmatic" Pat Nixon, Beattie tells us, is intriguing simply because she's so unreadable: She granted few interviews and wrote no memoirs (unlike most modern first ladies) — she presented, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, "no there, there." She was, writes Beattie "a person on the sidelines — always more interesting than the people on parade."

And so Beattie fixates on what it means that among Mrs. Nixon's nicknames was "Buddy," or ponders what Mrs. Nixon might have been thinking during the "Checkers" speech, or creates an internal monologue for Mrs. Nixon during her last minutes in the White House, when her disgraced husband inexplicably insisted on a photo op before boarding the helicopter. Looking at the photos, decades later, Beattie notes that "You get the sense she'd happily rise like Mary Poppins and disappear, if moving sideways to escape the picture frame wasn't enough of an escape."

In the realm of former first ladies, Pat Nixon does seem to have disappeared; she's not a source of endless fascination like Jacqueline Kennedy but a vaguely sad, voiceless ghost in the margins of history. "Mrs. Nixon" isn't a definitive biography — and isn't remotely meant to be — but it's a vivid, elegant study of two women: the subject and the biographer/storyteller, entwining in the imagination. One needed to be silent; the other needs to write, to weave a character from a handful of strands. "It was difficult to lift her out of [her husband's] context," reflects Beattie, "but if I'd let her stay there, she would have hidden forever."

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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