Review: ‘Eighteen Acres’ bedraggled by plot points

“Eighteen Acres” (Atria Books, $25), by Nicolle Wallace

American presidencies tend to be filled with a series of dizzying highs and precipitous lows. So it’s fitting, in a way, that Nicolle Wallace’s new novel is such mercurial reading.

With realistic characters and unusual insight into the West Wing, a place that will be opaque to most readers, “Eighteen Acres” is, on some levels, very successful. Bedraggled by plot points that the author, a former White House communications director under President George W. Bush, surely knows are implausible, it is also filled with disappointments.

Some real successes and some bitter disappointments. How many presidencies fit a description like this?

“Eighteen Acres,” which gets its name from the size of the White House compound, tells the story of Charlotte Kramer, the country’s first female president.

When the book begins, Charlotte is sizing up re-election, but she has some real issues to contend with: The public doesn’t like her very much, judging by her cratering poll numbers. Afghanistan seems unstable ahead of elections in that country. And Charlotte’s good-looking husband is having a torrid affair with a network TV anchor.

Notably, this story unfolds from the shifting perspectives of three women: straight-talking Charlotte, a former CEO and governor of California; her more reflective and sensitive chief of staff, Melanie Kingston; and Dale Smith, an ambitious TV correspondent and the paramour of Charlotte’s husband.

The novel’s plot twists, painfully, on a presidential trip to Afghanistan and its aftermath. Each of the three protagonists will be deeply affected by what’s happened. As will the reader — this is the part that will require you to willfully suspend your disbelief.

Like a presidency, which lacks any ability to pause, “Eighteen Acres” will keep churning along. Soon things will get even more dubious and flimsy, particularly with the rather abrupt introduction of a Sarah Palin-esque character whom Kramer takes on as her running mate.

Yet, even though it’s camp, there’s a certain irresistible quality to “Eighteen Acres.” The book is genuinely hard to put down, a testament to its well-drawn characters.

Melanie, for one, is a fascinating case. She also sounds the most like Wallace.

Both vulnerable and wry, she is a window into the life of an uber-career woman. Her observations allow Wallace to share what she knows after a lifetime in politics. There are entertaining nuggets about jockeying for the president’s time; who really knows the gossip in the White House; how reporters are spun; and so on.

Particularly amusing are Melanie’s dealings with her staff nemesis, Ralph — a roly-poly aide who sounds an awful lot like Karl Rove — and her battles with Tara Meyers, Charlotte’s superfolksy running mate. (Wallace, who also served as a senior aide to the campaign of Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, famously feuded with Palin.)

Charlotte and Dale, though they are less well-rendered, are equally entertaining.

Between the three of them, the ladies carry “Eighteen Acres” to a muddled success. Had the plot not bogged down the characters, Wallace might have had herself a literary landslide.


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