Eighteen Acres: A Novel by Nicolle Wallace
Eighteen Acres, the debut novel by Nicolle Wallace, communications director under George W. Bush and campaign advisor for John McCain and Sarah Palin, approaches contemporary politics from the angle of women’s commercial fiction. The three main characters each carry different careers within the realm of US politics: Melanie Kingston, the White House chief of staff, Charlotte Kramer, America’s first female president, and Dale Smith, a White House correspondent.
The novel opens as Charlotte approaches the end of her first term, and although she and her staff had decided that she will run for reelection, her poll numbers are tanking. Voters can’t relate to the unflinching former governor of California and mother of two who never bares emotion in her speeches. Between trips to Afghanistan and attending galas with the First Man, her husband Peter, Charlotte can’t seem to appeal to the country that elected her.
Her right hand, Melanie, travels around D.C. with three Blackberrys and a private car, deflating rumors regarding Charlotte’s personal life and keeping the press in line. She stays up all hours helping compose Charlotte’s speeches, checking the news, and frantically responding to e-mails. Her loyalty to Madam President runs deeper than her love of designer handbags, but after over a decade of service in the White House, Melanie feels herself being crushed under the demanding workload.
Dale Smith is the pretty face of a big network news show, but as an attractive, perpetually single woman with a suspicious traveling schedule, colleagues wonder what she might be hiding. When she’s not on camera, Dale is shacking up with Peter, the president’s husband, flying to meet him for secret weekend getaways in Napa Valley.
Wallace approaches her characters in standard women’s commercial fiction dialect, paying closer attention to brand names, designer clothes, and trope-like visuals rather than nuance in behavior or personality. She writes in conventions that readers, particularly of chick lit, will find familiar, such the preparation for a night on the town with a male suitor or an overly analytical response to a text message.
However, Wallace veers from the chick lit canon in providing her female characters with concerns that exceed that of simply “snagging the guy.” Her characters do seek love but are more complex in their desires for other achievements, whether they be in career, life satisfaction, or family. Unlike other commercial works, romance does not solve the problems of Wallace’s women but, at times, only presents a new set of them.
Melanie, Charlotte, and Dale also struggle to maintain work-life balance in their respective, but sometimes overlapping, lives. Wallace does not hesitate to paint them each with regret, sadness, and even remorse as they often reflect on the sacrifices they have made for their high-powered positions. Failed marriages, the raising of children, and a dwindling possibility of a personal life remain the focal point of the novel as Melanie takes a call in the Situation Room or Dale feverishly writes her scripts for on air.
The struggles of Wallace’s female characters are subtle as despite the demands of their careers, they still must yield to the physical expectations of them as women in the public eye. Before giving a speech to the American people, Charlotte is told to wear a blue suit because she doesn’t poll well when she wears either white or black. Madam President is told to leave her hair down instead of up and has a makeup team promptly come to her office every morning at seven.
But perhaps the most distinguishing factor in Eighteen Acres, one that truly challenges the novel as belonging to women’s commercial fiction, is how Wallace’s women conduct themselves around men. When an affair comes to light within Eighteen Acres, Wallace does not reduce her female characters to stereotypical jealous, conniving harpies determined to diminish one another; there are more important matters at stake. Wallace’s characters artfully refrain from the standard love triangle behavior popularized by countless other books in the commercial arena. Wallace succeeds in a much more alternative and unprecedented approach, assuring readers that these women they have come to know are, in fact, as complex as the earlier pages promised.
Wallace does not entirely bow to the convention of chick lit with Eighteen Acres. This hybrid model of commercial writing paired with a sharper regard for female characters is a rare find. Although Wallace’s writing can very well find a home among the shelves of chick lit, her characterization of women speaks otherwise.
Eighteen Acres: A Novel by Nicolle Wallace