Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Published by Random House
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Literary, Social Issues
Seldom has there been a public figure more scrutinized, disparaged, and talked about than Hillary Rodham Clinton. You might think it’s the price to be paid for entering politics, but the level of personal attacks against her often seem largely based on the fact that she is a she. Add to this her marriage to a man not known for his fidelity and her defeat in the 2016 presidential election and one has to wonder: What would life have been like for Hillary if she’d never married Bill? Wonder no more because in Rodham, the intrepid Curtis Sittenfeld has taken on the task of fictionalizing this woman who remains a mystery despite her decades of public service, the thousands of pages she’s written and that have been written about her.
Rodham begins with Hillary’s graduation speech from Wellesley, the first occasion when she publicly made waves by gently chastising the senator who spoke before her. From there she heads to the law school at Yale where her work ethic, her feminism, and her passion for issues involving women, children, and people of color make her stand out. Until she meets Bill Clinton whose larger-than-life personality wrapped in an aw-shucks Southern persona charms everyone. They fall passionately in love, connecting on an intellectual and physical level that stuns Hillary, whose experiences with men have been less than satisfying. After graduation, she defers her own plans to move to Arkansas with him, as a prelude to getting married. But sides of Bill emerge that she can’t reconcile and they go their separate ways. She returns to her home state of Illinois and begins the steady climb towards success, first as a law professor, activist and advocate and then as a politician. The novel culminates in 2016.
This is Hillary’s story, but despite not marrying him, Sittenfeld isn’t foolish enough to relegate Bill to a disappearing act. She sticks to a portion of history, but with different outcomes. She also doesn’t hesitate to get into the muck of what politics has become and no one, including Hilary, stays clean. This is part of what makes Rodham such jaw clenching reading—you may get what you want, but at what cost? For me, this is where the novel became one of those books that frustrates in the best way possible. It doesn’t go the way I expected nor wanted, but no other outcome seems plausible. Each reader will interpret it differently.
There’s only so far I can go in reviewing Rodham because while it is not a thriller, it has more ups and downs and more twists and turns than I’ve read in many novels of that genre. What I can say is that Sittenfeld does a remarkable job writing Hillary. She chooses to write in the first person and in this way, gives the novel the feel of a memoir—especially during the political parts. She does the heavy lifting to make even Hillary’s inner monologues sound like the woman herself. This ability to so closely imitate Hillary cuts both ways. There are the deeply personal aspects, including sex with Bill, that feel intrusive and the pragmatic political Hillary that feel dry and academic in tone. But it’s as Hillary ages that the impact of her life choices come off the page and resonate.
All of which is to say that at the very least Rodham is going to ignite the same amount of conversation and controversy as the woman herself. Sittenfeld is to be commended for writing a wildly inventive and carefully calculated novel that hews seamlessly to history, while corkscrewing off the page like rogue fireworks. It’s explosive, unexpected, and exciting reading.
Backlist Beauty: Want more women in politics fiction? Try another one I enjoyed, Charlotte Wash Likes to Win.
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