Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is a look at what might have been – Hill without Bill, if you like.

This has been the year of Curtis Sittenfeld for me, and since discovering her (thank you sister) I can’t seem to put down her books. The latest to hit my bedside table has been Rodham, her fictional autobiography of Hilary Clintons. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this book, I know Sittenfeld can probably make a grocery list seem absorbing and entertaining, but American politics and Hilary Clinton, who I’m not the biggest fan, is a big ask, but it turns out, in the hands of the right writer anything is possible.

Rodham is divided into three parts and starts with young Hilary at Yale, where she meets the charming and ambitious Bill Clinton. Bill has dreams of becoming President and he manoeuvres through life, angling himself in all the right places and with all the right people. They fall in love and have lots of sex, (lots of sex!) and move to Arkansas where Bill hopes to run for Governor. Their relationship lasts a little over 4 years and the second part of the book focuses on her life as a lecturer and as a single ambitious woman. This speculative part of the book looks at what might have happened if Hilary stopped being the supportive wife and instead focused on her own career. Much of what happens is rooted in some form of reality, like the 60 Minute Interview in 1992 when Hilary defended Bill after numerous claims of cheating. In the fictitious world of Sittenfeld, Hilary watches the car crash interview as Bills timid, weak and younger wife cries on TV, leading to Clinton eventually dropping out of politics, for a few years at least. Obama, Trump and others also make an appearance. The final part of the book is when the tone shifts slightly and it becomes not only a biography or a what if, but a real revenge fantasy. Hilary makes a run for the Presidency, her third attempt, and finds herself running against Bill Clinton, now a Tech Billionaire and known womaniser.

The book is full of political scandals, social commentary, gender politics, and of relationships. Hilary’s relationship with her family: her mother, who she deeply loves and respects, her father who is essentially emotionally abusive and a misogynist. It’s also about her relationships with other women, lifelong friends, and those she loses along the way, mainly due to her own short-sightedness. Sittenfeld explores what it means to be a woman who decides against getting married and settling down/having children and instead pursues her passions. Living a complete and fulfilled life outside of societies binary confinement of women. I’ve not been a Hilary cheerleader, until I picked up this book, now I find myself fully supporting for her.

Hillary Rodham isn’t always cast in the best of light, her privilege and the opportunities afforded to her, even in the late 1960’s are reflected upon later in the book. Race and misogyny rare their ugly heads, the latter more frequently. Like with most ambitious people, men or women, personal sacrifices must be made to feed their ambition, and possibly also their convictions. This costs Hilary important friendships and lessons that take her decades to fully appreciate. And still I found myself rooting for fictitious Hilary, and additionally softened me towards the real Hillary. Sittenfeld manages to create a three-dimensional character who the reader grows to appreciate and understand through the course of the novel. Hilary Rodham Clinton doesn’t owe us this much of her life just because she is a public figure, but the book, built around a great deal of nonfiction sources, allows us to begin to understand some of the situations and decisions she is faced with, and is very on the nose about the different expectations we have of women and men in public office. Although this is a fictitious look at what could have been, and as we continue to discuss women in top positions in politics, I think it’s always important to remember that Hilary Clinton did win the popular vote in 2016.

If you don’t like Hilary Clinton or her politics, I’m sure you won’t be swayed by this book, but that’s hardly the point. This is an excellent revision into a powerhouse of a woman and a look at what could have been. As is often stated, behind every great man is a greater woman. In Rodham, Sittenfeld allows the women to step out from behind the shadow and shine in her own right, and quite frankly I’m here for that.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld was originally published in May 2020 by Penguin Random House  

Page count: 432

Genres: Alternate history, Biographical Fiction

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