Review: Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld ★★★★☆
What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill? That is the premise of Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth novel, a work of speculative fiction which will be received as either a nauseating or captivating pitch to readers in an increasingly divided America. Featuring striking, yet disconcerting sex scenes, feminist revenge and poignant political discourse, Rodham is a remedial experience for its target audience, a momentum builder published in the lead up to the 2020 United States election.
In 1970, Hillary and Bill Clinton meet at Yale Law School and engage in a romance that does not stray far from the tale the western world loves to hate. In reality, Bill proposes to Hillary several times before she accepts his offer. Rodham, however, speculates an entirely different trajectory for both parties. Following numerous credible allegations of sexual assault against Bill, Hillary leaves both Clinton and her life in Arkansas behind and embarks on an independent journey to political life. Rodham is a triumph of alternative history, coordinating the same key players and events of our world, in a redefined landscape.
Sittenfeld is no stranger to this niche brand of historical fiction, her authorial voice carved a similar path in her 2008 novel, American Wife, a thinly-veiled fictionalisation of the life of Laura Bush. American Wife was revered by critics, but it pales in comparison to the depths Sittenfeld explores in her new release.
Hillary’s decision to marry Bill, a choice which was continuous and scrutinised from every angle, was the most consequential decision of her life. The audience of this text undoubtedly already have a position on the matter, which Sittenfeld utilises to create unparalleled interiors in Hillary’s newfound universe. Against a backdrop of similar faces, new love interests, intimate dialogue and intrusive thoughts were constructed, resulting in an ethos so authentic that it felt like Sittenfeld had access to Hillary’s thoughts on command.
The novel ricochets between two personas, allowing readers to engage with Hillary as a political symbol, an enigma of the second-wave feminist movement, and additionally as the nerdy girl stereotype, a woman who feels unattractive and longs for the male gaze while overachieving in every other aspect of life. The latter allows the reader to step outside of the Hillary vacuum and in a sense, fuel the idea that a potential presidential candidate sits in every university classroom in the world. Conversely, these tropes also humoured the notion that without Bill, we don’t know Hillary at all.
The first half of the novel is calculatingly sexual. Despite feeling intrusive and at times nauseating, as if reading about the sexual exploits of distant relatives, the erotic exploration of the character is a testament to Hillary’s feminine denigration in the public eye. It felt unethical at times to be engaging with literature of this nature about living political figures. Regardless, Sittenfeld’s motives were clear, to circumvent the frigid, private narrative society is force-fed about the former First Lady, and instead capture her spirit through an intimate lens, to personify a woman the media has portrayed as unworthy of intimacy.
Sittenfeld’s power is in her political prediction, cleverly positioning readers on a chessboard of her own design. Certain pieces and manoeuvres feel familiar, witty Trump cameos, sexual assault allegations against Bill and the presence of Obama in an ever-progressing America. However, Sittenfeld’s checkmate moment is the feminist revenge fantasy readers are exposed to in the final portion of the book. The re-designed political landscape was refreshingly realistic, with feminist undertones that will enchant any reader who has ever sacrificed an ounce of ambition for the sake of family.
For women who voted for Hillary in 2016, Rodham inextricably links Bill Clinton’s political feasibility to his partnership with Hillary, adeptly reshaping the timeline to echo her current political status. However, it is undeniable that the plot steadily declines in portions which do not feature Bill. Sittenfeld, purposefully or not, designed Clinton to be as charming on paper as the compelling character he appears to be in public life. A single message reverberated throughout these portions of the text, that Hillary felt less like herself and more like the caricature feminist academic with every line that moved away from her romance with Clinton. While making Hillary more relatable, it opened a wound in the storyline that could not be healed – are single, female politicians sustainable protagonists?
This alternate narrative moves beyond re-writing the timeline of an enigma, it challenges her existing public persona at every corner. From the crooked, to the private, to the frigid, Sittenfeld gathered the labels Hillary has been held hostage by like kindling, setting public perception alight with a plot line that invites readers to watch her public image, unfounded or not, burn.
Rodham simultaneously operates as a sophisticated fan fiction, a profile of one of the most powerful women in the world and as a historical artefact, a time capsule helping piece together literary responses to the Trump era. Fans and haters of Hillary alike will find Sittenfeld’s portrayal repulsive yet captivating, and in many ways, that is kind of the point. Hillary remains as divisive in print as she does in life, but for those who adore this fictional portrayal it remains a vital source of hope, one that defined a tumultuous period for democracy.