There’s a new short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the world this week, and it’s a Mrs. Dalloway-style imagination of a day in the life of Melania Trump as she plans a dinner party. The story, titled “The Arrangements,” is the New York Times Book Review’s first-ever commissioned piece of fiction (to be followed, for the sake of bipartisanship, by a second story from a different author on the Clintons in the fall). Adichie’s take on the Trumps is, as you may guess, not flattering, but underneath the clever and spot-on roasting of the Donald, Adichie strives for an understanding of the Trumps as humans with doubts and hopes and fears and private Pilates instructors, just like the rest of us. (Okay, maybe not quite like the rest of us.)
Melania decided she would order the flowers herself. Donald was too busy now anyway to call Alessandra’s as usual and ask for “something amazing.” Once, in the early years, before she fully understood him, she had asked what his favorite flowers were.
By opening the story by echoing the most recognizable line from Mrs. Dalloway, Adichie instantly calls up the somber mood and intense interiority of the Virginia Woolf classic. (Notice the replacement of “buy” with “order.” Melania Trump doesn’t buy flowers at the shop; she orders them from afar.) Although the opening paragraph amuses with its excellent mimicry of Donald-speech and with the entire premise of the cartoonish Trumps getting the Dalloway treatment, a malaise still seeps through.
As the story progresses, Adichie reveals a Clarissa-esque loneliness and existential unease in her imagination of Melania. After all, what would a marriage to Donald Trump have to be like? In Adichie’s version, Donald’s texts to Melania are mostly his own tweets copied and pasted: “Once she had suggested he hold back on a tweet and he replied that he had already tweeted it. He showed her his tweets after he had sent them, not before.” He makes racist remarks about her black Pilates instructor: “It’s not like Pilates is hip-hop or whatever.” Melania never voices her disagreements because “Donald disliked dissent.” He cups her breasts and tells her, “You need to get these fixed soon.” But Melania puts up with it all for the ease of living, the “luxurious peace.”
She sagged suddenly with terror, imagining what would happen if Donald actually won. Everything would change. Her contentment would crack into pieces. The relentless intrusions into their lives; those horrible media people who never gave Donald any credit would get even worse. She had never questioned Donald’s dreams because they did not collide with her need for peace. Only once, when he was angry about something to do with his TV show, and abruptly decided to leave her and Barron in Paris and go back to New York, she had asked him quietly, “When will it be enough?” She had been rubbing her caviar cream on Barron’s cheeks — he was about 6 then — and Donald ignored her question and said, “Keep doing that and you’ll turn that kid into a sissy.”
“The Arrangements” is far more than another parody of the Trumps. In reference to the story, Adichie said, “Fiction can remind us—and because of the blood-sport nature of politics, we constantly need reminding—that the players in politics are first human beings.” And she does exactly that. In her fictionalization of the family, Adichie digs beneath their public images (which are fictionalizations, too, are they not?) and humanizes them, even makes them empathetic. They’re still ridiculous, with their butlers and caviar face creams and general over-the-top opulence, but more empathetic than anyone aside from Trump’s own mother ever thought possible. And that’s a true literary feat.