Hillary Clinton is the most successful female politician of the 21st century, despite not becoming president of the United States. But what if she never became Hillary Clinton?
Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel “Rodham” creates an amusing yet personal portrait playing off the scenario of Hillary never marrying Bill. As with all uplifting fiction, it has a happy ending: Hillary Rodham, unlike Hillary Clinton, does becomes president.
The author describes fictional incidents that mirror real ones, with Hillary narrating her inner thoughts as she strives to make the right choices. Her public persona, plain-spoken with a bit of self-doubt, is nicely captured. They give weight to what could have been a tinsel-esque embellishment of her psyche. But this is no political melodrama: It is a personal story and it is entertaining.
There are three elements that generally influence who people vote for: policy issues, group identity and a candidate’s personality, which may be the most important factor. “Rodham” is a masterpiece for understanding how personality may just be at the heart of our political landscape.
The relationship between Bill and Hillary underlies the novel’s story. Sittenfeld’s portrait of the nearly married couple will have you believing you actually heard their conversations. Although the first quarter of the book is not focused on politics, it left me with a better understanding of the couple’s motivations for jumping into that arena. They are portrayed with such ease and empathy that you see how fiction can be more revealing than the fractured truths some in the media toss out as fact.
Most of the principal locations and events are true. Hillary grows up in metropolitan Chicago, going to Wellesley College and then meeting Bill at Yale Law School. He did go back to Arkansas right after graduating to run for Congress, and he did later become the state’s longest-serving governor.
The novel is sharpest when Sittenfeld weaves these real events in with incidents so believable that the reader wonders where reality and fiction diverge. This is most effective for many of the smaller scenes that reveal the personal tug and pull between Bill and Hillary, which the public was made aware of only from a distance.
Bill proposes to Hillary but is unfaithful, and ultimately, they mutually recognize that his sexual behavior will not change, so she goes her own way. Yet she continues to be emotionally connected to him, despite considering him to be a sexual predator. She becomes a senator from Illinois, Bill becomes a billionaire from his high-tech corporate connections, their lives go on in different directions.
The last section of the book has fun with Hillary running for president in 2016 following Barack Obama’s two terms, when Bill jumps into the primary. In a chilling nod to the reality of the 2016 presidential election, Bill’s supporters chant “Shut her up!” at his rallies, which he ignores, but allows to continue.
Donald Trump plays a role as an unsolicited supporter of Hillary because he dislikes Bill so much. Sittenfeld pulls off this fantasy by capturing his political posturing and using Trumpian talk. He tells Hillary in a casual conversation that he will not run for president, but says, “Every day, people beg me to run for president.”
This novel could have become a fanciful farce or just boring given that the Clintons have been covered so much. And throwing Trump into the mix could have made it even less credulous. But the characters are so perfectly tuned that they perform as an ensemble, drawing the reader ever deeper into their play, making it difficult to put down the book.
“Rodham” by Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 432 pp., $28