Christopher Buckley’s “No Way to Treat First Lady” wastes no time launching into the plot. The first chapter begins with a sex scene between the President of the United States and a woman other than his wife, and ends with a murder. What follows is the subsequent murder trial of the First Lady, Beth MacMann. Facing assassination charges, MacMann is forced to team up with “Shameless” Boyce Baylor – the nastiest lawyer in the United States, and her former flame.
There is no denying the political element to the novel. Those uninterested in the realm of politics or courtroom dramas should not waste time picking this up. But Buckley does his job well: he never allows the political nature of the text to become overwhelming, nor does he allow the courtroom battle to go stale. The novel constantly changes viewpoints, leaving the reader waiting for the next piece of evidence – and whether or not MacMann committed murder remains a secret, even from the reader, until the closing chapters.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this novel is that it manages to transcend time. Despite being ten years old, the pop culture references and wise cracks made within the novel seem fresh and current – and therefore feel charming, rather than smothering. However, Red Sox fans will take note: there is one joke that no longer holds up in regards to the team’s World Series wins.
The book is at its best when it focuses on Baylor. “Shameless” Baylor is constantly manipulating those around him, and leaves even his client questioning his reasoning. Being inside Baylor’s mind is twisted, immoral, and entirely electric. He works the legal system in every way imaginable, and yet he remains likable.
Buckley pays careful attention to each character in the cast. Every character presented plays an important role in the narrative, although at first glance, they may appear insignificant. At one point, the novel discusses the timeline of a traditional murder trial, where legal teams attempt to have a minute-by-minute timeline for the night of the murder. Baylor’s timeline is said to be “millisecond by millisecond.” And Buckley’s narrative works in a similar way, carefully tying everything together to create an intriguing murder case.
Although the crime begins in the White House, very little time is spent there. The majority of the novel takes place within the confines of the courtroom, and the case drags out over the course of six months. However, the case slowly becomes impacted by a sub-plot that stems from McMann and Baylor’s partnership. That aspect of the story does not live up to its full potential, but is minor enough to keep from ruining the novel’s pacing. It also works to add a human element to an otherwise detached case –McMann has been nicknamed “Lady BethMac” by the press, and her personal narrative allows the reader to see past her icy exterior.
“No Way To Treat a First Lady” is a treat for anyone interested in politics and its descent into the realm of entertainment. Buckley’s use of legal terms and description of the White House come directly from lawyers and former President George Bush, which lends a certain credibility to the novel. Perhaps most alarming is that the theatrics, dirty politics, and foul play featured within the text sounds all too real. Ten years may have passed, but Buckley’s assessment of politics and media still sounds all too familiar.