Hillary Rodham Clinton has one of the most famous (or infamous) marriages in the world. Everyone knows the story of Hillary and Bill, everyone has an opinion on his Oval Office misbehaviour, everyone remembers how Hillary finally ran for office herself and was bafflingly defeated by… well, you remember. But what if it was all different? What if Hillary had never married Bill? That’s the conceit of Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s alternative history novel published back in 2020 when the world was ending.
Rodham begins with Hillary graduating from Wellesley in 1969, giving a bold and divisive speech at her graduation ceremony (as she did in real life). The following year, attending Yale Law School, she meets Bill Clinton. To her great surprise, the charming and charismatic man pursues her, and they quickly fall in love. They make moves towards building a life together and all seems to be going swimmingly, until Hillary discovers that Bill is a serial cheater (again, as she did in real life).
Here’s where Rodham and real life diverge, though. Real Hillary set aside her qualms about Bill’s philandering and accepted his proposal of marriage – you can read the rest in her Wikipedia entry. In Rodham, though, Fictional Hillary declines, and sets off to start her own career in academia, eventually transitioning into politics herself.
The margin between staying and leaving was so thin; really, it could have gone either way.Rodham (Page 146)
Rodham offers fascinating insight into Hillary’s mind – or, at least, Sittenfeld’s informed best-guess about it. The choice to relay the story from a first-person point of view doubles the effect. It’s shockingly intimate, even quite horny at times. I found it difficult to force myself to forget that Rodham is about a real person, and that she might have read this imagined version of her own life. There seemed to be no limit on what Sittenfeld imagined for Hillary: what she does when she’s alone, what she likes in bed, what her bowel movements are like.
(Despite extensive Googling, I haven’t been able to find any mention of Real Hillary reading and/or commenting on Rodham. If you know of such evidence, please share it with me! I’m dying to know what she thinks about it!)
I hope I’m not giving you the wrong idea: Rodham isn’t a schlocky fictional exposé. With equal care and attention, Sittenfeld also addresses the Big Issues: sex, sexism, racism, and aging.
Bill doesn’t come off looking too good – at best, he’s portrayed as a charismatic manipulator who can’t keep it in his pants (and I can’t say I finished Rodham thinking the best of him). Hillary’s father comes off as a real prick, too. Completing the trifecta of arseholery, Donald Trump makes his first appearance around page 270 (2005, in Fictional Hillary’s timeline), and remains a peripheral caricature throughout the remainder of the story.
Wasn’t Donald simply a far less palatable version of Bill? Rich and narcissistic and verbose, charismatic, and transfixing? Bill was far smarter, but was he really less sleazy?Rodham (Page 332)
I noted down a few small qualms as I read Rodham. The dialogue is a bit stilted and formal. The opening chapters assume a strong working knowledge of the U.S. political system. There are odd time jumps in the narrative – for example, skipping right over Fictional Hillary’s first campaign for U.S. Senate, after a lot of build-up to her decision to run at all – and the ending was abrupt. But none of these issues really detracted from my enjoyment and thrill at entering this alternative world, one where a complex woman lays down the gauntlet (and Bill’s political aspirations fall to shit without her).
In a review, The New Yorker criticised Sittenfeld for creating a less controversial Hillary in Rodham. It’s true, Fictional Hillary isn’t faced with a lot of the political decisions that her critics still deride her for to this day. But artificially inserting those facts into the fictional alterna-world would have ruined the book’s conceit, as far as I can tell. Sittenfeld isn’t recreating reality on the page – she’s imagining a different reality, one that allows us to explore ideas about politics and gender with recognisable figures and a control group (i.e., “what really happened”) to compare it to.
I was surprised by Rodham. It was masterfully written, fascinating and shocking (at times), a pleasure to read and fuel for a lot of post-read musing. As I mentioned, I’m dying to know what Real Hillary thought of it, but if I never find out, I’ll satisfy myself with recommending it to everyone and forcing them to tell me what they think about it.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Rodham:
- “This book is lacking in sooo many ways. For a book that is supposed to be about Hillary’s life WITHOUT Bill Clinton, so much of the book is about her relationship with Clinton. Worse yet, the only exciting part of her entire life in this book is the 4 years she spent with Clinton. Outside of that relationship, her life is like eating baked chicken and boiled potatoes every night for dinner for decades on end.” – S. Davis
- “Save your time. Spoiler alert. She becomes President. I’m not familiar with this author and I thought only a man would write, “thrust” so many times in a sex scene. And use the word scrotum! I’m disappointed to realize the author is a woman!” – C Davis
- “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that “Bill Clinton’s erect penis” was running for President in this book, There it was, hiding around every corner just waiting to leap out. And just after I’d thought I’d heard the end of it after the first part, it came charging back.” – Tamara T. Pitts
- “I would have put it in the bin but I shredded and composted it instead. Too embarrassed to send it to my local charity book store. They already had about 7 copies; book clubs have a lot to answer for.” – Vivica