Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld review – Hill minus Bill

Hillary Clinton’s life is brilliantly reimagined in Sittenfeld’s enjoyable sixth novel

Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, Rodham, is a reimagining of the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton and it’s a wilder ride than that pitch might suggest. I kept losing track, as I read, of what kind of novel it was and of whether or not I approved. The first third, cleaving roughly to reality and Bill and Hillary’s early years at Yale Law School and in Arkansas, includes a lot of feverish, Black Lace-type sex scenes featuring much cupping of scrotums and – apologies for the image this will provoke – the phrase “his erection inside me”.

The second, a meditation on the experience of a single woman in politics, follows Hillary back home to Chicago after she walks out on Bill. Finally and most surprisingly, in the last third of the book, Rodham becomes a kind of revenge fantasy for women who sublimate their own ambitions for the sake of their husband’s careers, at which point I had to tip my hat to Sittenfeld. I went into the novel thinking the entire premise was crass and came out of it thoroughly entertained.

Haters of Hillary Clinton won’t read this book, which is, of course, part of the point. Rodham is Sittenfeld’s sixth novel and a faint echo of American Wife, her novel of 2008, in which she imagined the life of a first lady much like Laura Bush, an excavation that entailed slightly more effort than it was worth. Rodham is a different beast, focusing on someone so reviled and over-analysed that, by reputation, at least, she has ceased to be human. I don’t hate Hillary, but I have had enough of her, or so I thought. The first surprise of the novel is how gripping it is; the second is how worthy its protagonist is as a subject for fiction.

The author’s sympathies are clear from the opening pages, in which she revisits Hillary’s first encounter with public life, when, as a student graduating from Wellesley in 1969, she went rogue during her speech and, to the horror of the university authorities, told off the conservative senator who had spoken before her. The speech made national news and the novel sets it up as a kind of question: how did that 21-year-old firebrand, staring down convention, become known as a corporate shill and feminist sell-out, loathed by elements of the left as much as the right?

For a real answer you should go to Hulu’s recent excellent four-part documentary about Hillary, in which former staffers and friends talk about the warping effect of spending decades as the only woman in the room (and, later, on the debate stage). The joy of Sittenfeld’s novel, of course, is that, with the monstrous presumptions of fiction, it imagines what being inside that reality might have been like.

You can see why the author went overboard with the sex scenes. There is a shadow text behind Rodham, which is the charge sheet of slurs, many of them misogynist, that the real Hillary has put up with for her entire career and which the novel seeks to dismantle. The first is “frigid”. No frigidity here! The same goes for “cold”, “calculating”, “mercenary” and “unlikable”, all of which Sittenfeld tackles with a shrewd eye for the way women in public life are held to impossible standards. Every scene that humanises Hillary is compared, in the reader’s mind, with the reality of her image, along with events as they really happened. In the novel, Hillary leaves Bill at the first whiff of infidelity, but it is one of the book’s strengths that, by implication, it explains why the real Hillary might have stuck with him.

Hillary Clinton in 1969
Hillary Clinton in 1969. Photograph: Lee Balterman/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images

The answer, in Sittenfeld’s rendering, is that she straight-forwardly adored him – and he, her. The depiction of Bill Clinton is in some ways more satisfying than that of the novel’s protagonist. He is drawn by Sittenfeld as capricious, self-indulgent, talented but not brilliant, and also attracted to Hillary as to nobody else. “I knew plenty of smart people, but I’d never before encountered a person whose intelligence sharpened mine the way his did,” thinks our heroine after meeting Bill and the love story, if you can get over the slightly grim sense of prurience hanging over it all, is credible.

What is more fascinating is the conclusion drawn by Sittenfeld that, without Hillary, Bill’s political career would not have been viable. From the couple’s earliest days in Arkansas, Hillary was painted as a political liability, a woman who insulted housewives by making fun of their cookie baking and who was stiff and alienating in public. In fact, as the novel contends, when the first of Bill’s many female accusers came out of the woodwork with claims he had harassed them, Hillary’s defence of her husband deflected the blame from him on to her. If, as in the novel, Bill had married a more demure and conventional political wife, he would have taken more heat for his infidelities. As it was, everyone decided to hate Hillary.

There is a scarcity of action in the novel, at times, which is nonetheless strangely compelling. In the middle section, pages go by in which nothing much happens other than Hillary hanging out with her friends, feeling the chill of being a single, childless woman when most of her contemporaries are married with kids. The frisson of seeing her in these quotidian settings – a demonised woman at rest – is in some ways more captivating than the dramatic passages.

A bigger problem is tone, which occasionally slides into the generic nerdy-girl-with-love-problems shtick that has been a weakness of Sittenfeld’s since her first novel, Prep. As the years go by, Hillary becomes a thoughtful, hard-working, occasionally ruthless career politician, always vilified by the press, often longing for love, while Bill becomes an internet billionaire who is still basically an arsehole. Decades after they split, they meet again.

The action is all highly enjoyable – including a killer cameo appearance by Donald Trump – and, whether or not you buy the political fantasy, as a novel it is a delight. It’s an irony of the book that, while seeking to rescue Hillary from caricature, it ends up being a kind of love letter to a type: the American bluestocking and female intellectual, who is given none of the licence of her less talented male peers. At the end, which I won’t spoil, I actually said out loud: “Oh, my God” – and, to my amazement, found myself moved.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Emma Brockes

The GuardianTramp

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