Rodham starts with an epigraph from Hillary Clinton’s 2017 memoir, What Happened. “My marriage to Bill Clinton was the most consequential decision of my life. I said no the first two times he asked me. But the third time, I said yes. And I’d do it again.” In her sixth novel, Curtis Sittenfeld imagines a trajectory without the final “yes”.
Rodham is wild. Featuring a naked saxophone-playing Bill, a cameo from a perfectly impersonated Donald Trump, and a sex scandal all of Hillary’s own, it’s soapy as hell. The tendency in this relatively new tradition of fan fiction is for the writer to conveniently assume that the characters are so familiar that the work of animating them can be left off the page; the writer can focus, instead, on putting these characters into unseen circumstances. As a result, it is difficult sometimes to recognise Hillary and Bill as their real-life counterparts. In some ways this makes sense: Hillary Rodham, while still ambitious, doesn’t shoulder the weight of carrying Bill Clinton’s flaws and so lacks Hillary Clinton’s simmering resentment. In others it requires a greater leap of faith: the novel’s protagonist displays a schoolgirl naivety well into her 60s, which seems less a comment on the real Hillary and more about how Sittenfeld likes to write. That said, Sittenfeld’s restraint as a fan is impressive. The Hillary Rodham who narrates the story gets an overwhelmingly sympathetic portrayal and yet we still see her narrow-mindedness on issues such as race and modern feminism.
Rodham is largely irrelevant to the American politics of the present and future, especially when reading it during the current Black Lives Matter movement. But there is room to understand two things to be simultaneously true: Hillary Clinton has been intensely and unfairly discounted as a result of her gender; and, though she was the better candidate, Hillary Clinton may not have been the revolutionary president America needed.
This book works because of the complex and divisive woman who inspires it. Whether you think Hillary would have saved America or you’re more sceptical, Rodham is an enjoyable romp. It’s corny and laboured and full of precocious banter like a teen TV drama, but it is also at times genuinely affecting. Did it make me literally squirm to read about Bill Clinton’s “erection” “nudging” into Hillary? Yes. But did I keep reading incessantly with morbid fascination? Also, absolutely yes.
Doubleday, 432pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2020 as "Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham".
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