Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. Random House, 2020. $30.00, 432 pages.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s upcoming novel, Rodham, is a reimagining of Hillary Rodham’s life had she not married Bill Clinton. The provocative premise will draw readers in, but you’ll stay for the well-crafted alternate universe Sittenfeld weaves around our nation’s politics.
Told in the retrospect, the book sets up the historical events from the close first-person. It takes us through the mind of a fictionalized Hillary as she finds her knack for public speaking at a young age, meets Bill in law school at Yale, and moves to Arkansas as he runs for governor. But then reality diverges: Hillary refuses his multiple marriage proposals due to his habitual transgressions and leaves Arkansas for good. The rest of the novel shows an alternate reality of Hillary’s career as a single woman. Characters like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump are rearranged, and the snowball effect of Hillary not marrying Bill proves historically significant. We’re even given a fictitious list of the presidents that are elected in this parallel timeline.
The plot winks at our political reality, but it’s noticeably fictionalized. Hillary’s narrative voice is self-assured and engaging, but is self-consciously reminiscing on the events of her life: “But now that I am in my seventies, I’ve learned very little from the past is truly sealed.”
The fictional Bill becomes, in effect, the villain of the story. On their first date, Bill explains to Hillary his problem with becoming “overly infatuated” with women, and readers aware of the Lewinsky scandal shudder at what’s to come for Hillary. We’re complicit in the plot, because as Americans, we are the background characters.
Fans of Sittenfeld (like myself) know this is not her first work in the genre of political fantasy. Rodham follows Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, a story loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. But unlike its predecessor, Rodham doesn’t change names of characters, nor does it take as many liberties with their personalities and life events. By technicality, Sittenfeld has now entered a literary tradition well-written fan fiction.
And before you scoff at fan fiction: note that it’s not just a recent invention spawned from the internet’s Wattpad archives. Shakespeare copied characters, if not entire plots, for many of his plays, including Romeo and Juliet. Early Star Trek fanzines like Spockanalia explored feminist narratives within the story that weren’t shown on screen. And Sittenfeld is not the first to venture into fictionalizing political figures: the 1946 novel All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren is generally read as a thinly veiled novel about controversial Louisiana politician Huey P. Long.
Political fan fiction contains grains of truth, threads of validity. In Rodham, Hillary compromises her values for racial equality to get ahead in a senatorial race. She becomes aligned with Donald Trump in order to secure votes in her presidential race, despite her distaste for him. Beneath the inspiring story of a woman rising to the top of her game in politics lurks the essential deceit and dog eat dog world of the profession.
If anything, this is the part of the novel that wasn’t brought to the forefront as much as it should have been. The nefarious nature of politics plays second fiddle to Hillary’s romantic life, and by the end, we’re made to believe she clawed her way to the top with little casualties––and this feels a little too unrealistic for a political novel.
For those who love Hillary Clinton, this novel will validate them, but it will remove the veil of diplomacy behind the politician. For those who hate her, it will provide little consolation, but it will give valuable insight into the world of femininity in politics. And for those who are ambivalent about her, it will leave you with both an admiration for Hillary and the author. Sittenfeld has taken on a truly ambitious subject matter, and Rodham will be a controversial success.
Kaylie Saidin grew up in San Francisco and now lives in North Carolina, where she is an MFA candidate at UNC Wilmington. She reads fiction for Ecotone and Pithead Chapel. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Columbia Review, upstreet #15, Catamaran Literary Reader, Gulf Stream, and elsewhere.