In ‘Rodham,’ Curtis Sittenfeld Reimagines Hillary’s Life
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Magicians know never to perform the same trick twice, an aphorism that might have saved Curtis Sittenfeld from attempting a second roman à clef about a famous American first lady.
I devoured Sittenfeld’s thinly veiled portrait of Laura Bush, “American Wife,” when it was published in 2008. There were always hints that behind her enigmatic, doe-eyed smile, Bush was deeper and more complicated than people realized (after all, her favorite piece of writing was the famously ambiguous “Grand Inquisitor” section from Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”).
As a tabula rasa, Bush presented Sittenfeld with the perfect vehicle for a fictionalized life. Not so Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose biography has endlessly been dissected in numerous books, including Gail Sheehy’s attempted psychoanalysis, “Hillary’s Choice,” Sally Bedell Smith’s authoritative portrait of her marriage, “For Love of Politics,” and countless books by high-profile investigative reporters. Clinton herself has written three best-selling memoirs. There isn’t much left to excavate.
In “Rodham,” Sittenfeld tries to bypass this problem by imagining what Clinton’s life might have been like if she had decided not to marry Bill or live so much of her life in his shadow. What if she had remained Hillary Diane Rodham, a smart, single woman determined to be president? What if she hadn’t wasted her early professional years back-seating herself to her husband’s political ambitions? What if she had gone into politics on her own much earlier? What if there had been no Rose Law Firm billing records, no Monica Lewinsky and, even better, no years as first lady?
This kind of alternative history can be illuminating when it’s done well, as in “The Plot Against America,” Philip Roth’s novel about what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh had won the presidential election in 1940 instead of F.D.R. But there have also been myriad forgettable “what if” novels about Hitler winning World War II or the Confederacy defeating the North. Fun to read, they are rarely literary treasures.
What Sittenfeld tries is more ambitious, an entire alternative biography: Hillary striding into the history books without Clinton at the end of her name or all the Bill baggage. This may work as an exercise in wish fulfillment for her most ardent admirers. But for other readers, the familiar anecdotes that fill the first section of the novel verge on the tedious. Why repeat Hillary’s famous 1969 speech at her Wellesley commencement, or the stories about meeting Bill at Yale Law School? Sittenfeld’s imagined life for Bush worked so well because we never knew the real one. Not so this time around — because Hillary’s life is so well known, parts of “Rodham” feel slow and stale.
Sittenfeld is a smart, funny writer. She is often best when she places her characters in cringingly embarrassing situations. In her debut novel, “Prep,” a painfully out of place Midwestern girl at an elite boarding school suffers all kinds of pratfalls; in “American Wife,” Alice has a terrible attack of diarrhea on a visit to her future in-laws at their sprawling Wisconsin retreat. And in “Rodham,” when Hillary teaches her first class as a young law professor in Arkansas, she is unaware that her backside is exposed to the entire class because she stuffed her skirt into her pantyhose after a hasty bathroom visit.
Alice was a sympathetic protagonist in “American Wife” — so likable, in fact, that I had a hard time understanding why she had married such an imbecilic man, someone who delighted in farting in front of people. In “Rodham,” Hillary does not make the same mistake because she discovers early on that Bill is a sex addict and possibly a predator; there is an incident during their courtship that is clearly based on Juanita Broaddrick’s allegations. So why does Hillary follow him to Arkansas after law school? Well, partly because the sex is good. (Though it’s so detailed it made me wince. Definitely TMI.)
I breathed a sigh of relief when Hillary finally extricates herself from Bill and drives away, reflecting, “The margin between staying and leaving was so thin. Really, it could have gone either way. Sometimes I think that my years of diligent schoolwork and political idealism had given me the erroneous notion that if one choice, one plan, was hard and the other was easy, doing the hard thing was inherently better, more upstanding.” Here the novel takes off, but it’s almost too late; the long runway wait has been wearying.
Sittenfeld writes convincingly about Hillary’s political ambitions. She draws revealing scenes that expose the terrible double standard that women candidates face, the microscopic attention to their looks and dress. In one, Hillary has forgotten to shave her legs before an important political event, and an aide does it for her in the car. Later, after “Razorgate” becomes public, she’s hounded on the campaign trail about it and, because she’s single, by speculation that she’s a lesbian.
The crisp, insightful voice Sittenfeld creates for Hillary reminds me of the writing in “What Happened,” Hillary’s memoir about the 2016 campaign. Watching the disappointing returns of the New Hampshire primary in 2004 with her staff, Sittenfeld’s Hillary observes, “We as humans tend to look away from the explicit failures of others, and my staff and volunteers’ discomfort over the course of the evening was palpable.” Sittenfeld genuinely gets Hillary, plumbing how her youthful idealism fades as she confronts the realities of politics.
I first met Hillary in 1978 in Little Rock, when she was still Hillary Rodham, and her insistence on keeping her maiden name had hurt Bill’s career. He was trying to win the Arkansas governorship; I wondered whether she resented crimping her own ambitions. I thought I sensed some repressed anger — anger that later emerged during her husband’s 1992 presidential campaign and in the White House. As I covered her in Washington, she always seemed happiest and lightest when her achievements were her own, whether as New York senator, as secretary of state or during her own White House run.
I don’t know if Sittenfeld ever met the real Hillary, but in “Rodham,” she paints a post-Bill life for her that seems perfectly plausible, one that becomes richer with the passage of time. But as good as the final third of the novel is — especially the chapters when Hillary runs for president, complete with a rollicking cameo by Donald Trump — it never recovers from those early pages, where Sittenfeld is still tethered to her character’s real biography.