Do you ever go into a book knowing its NOT for you but intending to like it? That’s what happened with me and Curtis Sittenfeld’s new book, Rodham. I loved Eligible, and American Wife was alright. I really liked her short story collection but this “reimaginging” of Hillary Clinton’s life if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton just…doesn’t deliver.This’ll be a mostly spoiler free review.
Rodham introduces us to Hillary Clinton on the day of her Wellesly graduation and takes us through the 2016 election which spoiler alert: she’s competing in, just like in reality, and it’s her third attempt to run for president. Nothing creative there. We see her meet Bill at Yale Law, and we spend the first say 40% of the book learning about their relationship, watching them fall for each other and have a lot of sex, etc. Then, as is indicated in the blurb, Hillary and Bill leave each other, but not necessarily for good. They don’t marry. That’s the key. Poor Chelsea Clinton, written out of existence. We then jump forward to 2015 and Hillary is running for president but there’s a surprise entrance into the race. (SPOILER: Yes, you guessed it…Bill). From there, there are flashbacks through the 90s and 2000s detailing her rise into political power, her previous runs, her running into Bill, who has become a tech guru a la Jeff Bezos with a little Jeffrey Epstein in there, after failing to win the White House in 1992. From there, the story barrels on towards November and election day and we finally learn if Hillary would have won the White House in this alternative but not really that different universe.
This book is bascially liberal fanfiction. It’s clear that Sittenfeld is really into Hillary and wants her to win, and that’s fine. I knew that coming in. But I still wish it had been a better story. Narratively…it just wasn’t fun. It wasn’t imaginative. It’s not insight into someone we don’t know anything about. Many have argued Hillary’s downfall was we had known her too well…and I don’t think the book explores that enough. It flips this premise–the marriage to Bill–but not much else. Hillary’s life, frankly, isn’t that different, and I don’t think that’s true to reality. It presumes that political office was in Hillary’s blood, but I don’t think the first half of Hillary’s life or the first half of this book leads to that. This would have ben a way more interesting book if Sittenfeld as an author stepped back from being a HIllary supporter and explored her nuances. What if Hillary had ended up on the Supreme Court? What if she had met someone else? Why make her haunted by Bill her whole life? What if it was his marriage to Hillary that would have made Bill a good candidate and not the other way around? For all the feminism this book tries to bring–and it makes great points about sexism in politics–I don’t think it leans into its ideas enough.
Also, the whole #MeToo elements of this book are…weird. Not forced, but weird. Bill comes out worse than Donald Trump, a former staffer speaks up against HIllary too, and a rape allegation in the beginning of the book pretty much ends up not mattering at all.
I like the idea of alternative fiction–but with someone like Hillary, it doesn’t work that well. She’s a person we know too well and this book doesn’t get “alternative” enough to make it interesting.