Rodham (2020) – Curtis Sittenfeld

Title:Rodham
Author:Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher/s:Doubleday/Penguin Random House
Date of publication:2020
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Penguin Random House kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

What if Hilary never married Bill Clinton? This is the question that pervades Curtis Sittenfelds’s speculative novel that walks precariously between fact and fiction. This is an alternate reality in which the woman who would one day run for President of the United States of America, does not in fact marry the man who actually became President of the United States. In this reality he proposed and she turned him down, and though she did look back, she continued moving forward.

Hilary Diane Rodham was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois and attended the prestigious Wellesley College, and then went on to graduate from Yale Law School. It was at Yale that she met the charismatic Bill Clinton (born William Jefferson Clinton) whose small-town charm endured her to him. Proudly from Hope, Arkansas, Bill had early ambitions to work in politics and throughout his relationship with Hilary in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Bill ran for senator of his home state, did campaigning for leading politicians and ultimately pursued the presidency with every intention of winning.

Meanwhile the relationship between Hilary and her southern beau was not all roses. After a bout of indiscretions that would devastate the ambitious young lawyer, the couple break up and both go their separate ways. Of course this is the ‘Twilight Zone’ version of Hilary’s life, and the ‘novel is entitled Rodham not Clinton, and so it is worth noting that despite her relationship with Bill becoming a blight on her every endeavor, this is a story about a very ambitious woman and what she is capable of – especially in a very male-dominated profession. This is NOT a story that is built on making comparisons to a hypothetical ending. In this version, Hilary simply did not marry Bill and that is that. Of course, Bill will make a few appearances, and that is inevitable. Much like theater, politics is a performance, and we need our villains just as much as we need our heroes. If I can say anything for Sittenfeld’s literary prose, it is that she allowed me the freedom to really dislike the ‘character’ Bill Clinton, and to have even more respect for Hilary and what she stands for.

In Rodham, Hilary is ambitious, unapologetic and devastatingly ‘uncool’. She remains mostly single, and as her career blossoms, she becomes more and more accepting of her aloneness. In this version she never marries nor does she have children, but she maintains fierce female friendships, and unwittingly becomes a symbol for the unspoken for. As Bill goes on to marry several times over, produce children and comes under public scrutiny for a sex scandal, Hilary can’t help but imagine what her life would have been like if she had married him. As the years go by and Barack Obama becomes president, and Donald Trump is merely a precocious billionaire with a reality show, Hilary suddenly finds herself running for the presidency against the very man who wanted her to be his wife.

Not only is this a hypothetical tale of what could have been, it is also a very real and poignant story of a young woman who was considered smart and opinionated, and who fought her way into the world of politics where gender marked her as an adult. Unlike her male counterparts Hilary and every female standing on any podium anywhere at any time in history, have to consider ‘likeability’, growing older and having their past relationships emblazoned on their sleeves like badges of dishonor. In Sittenfeld’s novel we get a backstage pass to what it’s really like to be a political candidate, and to be a female candidate whose every move and every spoken word is recorded and analyzed and found to be wanting.

I do not have all the details, and I suppose in a way it is completely possible to read this novel without knowing the true story, or the gritty details of American history. Perhaps reading something so speculative is meant to be just that; a speculation. What I do know is that Rodham is a novel that deserves to be read, and read again. Forget about Bill, forget about Trump, and forget about the sex scandals and forget about what could have been. Instead I urge you to read this novel as a warning, as a modern tale of what it means to be ambitious and female, and not following the path along the white picket trail. I urge you to the read this book because this is a human story, and a great story, and Sittenfeld clearly knows how to tell a story. Read this novel because what could have been is not necessarily impossible, and because this novel reminds us that sometimes great people become the President of the United States and sometimes they don’t.

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