Asking What If? with Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Early on in Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth novel, a work of alternative history narrated entirely by Hillary Rodham and covering the years between 1970 and the recent past, the character describes the method of decision-making she’s used since the third grade:

I thought of it as the Rule of Two: If I was unsure of a course of action but could think of two reasons for it, I’d do it. If I could think of two reasons against it, I wouldn’t.

Here’s the Rule of Two as applied to Rodham:

  • You are likely to enjoy this novel if:
    1. You (if American) voted for Hillary Clinton or (if not) admire her and think she should have won the 2016 presidential race.
    2. You are a devoted fan of Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing and, in particular, loved American Wife (her 2008 masterpiece from the perspective of a fictionalized Laura Bush) and/or “The Nominee,” a short story voiced by HRC that appeared in the UK edition of You Think It, I’ll Say It.
  • You will probably want to avoid this novel if:
    1. The idea of spending hours in Hillary’s head – hearing about everything from how Bill Clinton makes her feel in bed to her pre-debate nervous diarrhea – causes you to recoil.
    2. You’re not particularly interested in “What if?” questions, or would prefer that they were answered in one sentence rather than 400 pages.

Sittenfeld is one of my favorite authors and I’ve read everything she’s published, so I was predisposed to like Rodham and jumped at the chance to read it early. She has a preternatural ability to get inside other minds and experiences, channeling a first-person voice with intense detail and intimacy. It’s almost like she’s a medium instead of a novelist. As in “The Nominee,” the narration here is perfectly authentic based on what I’d read from HRC’s memoirs. However, a problem I had was that the first third of the novel sticks very closely to the plodding account of her early years in Living History, which I’d read in 2018. I liked coming across instances when she was told she was too strong-willed and outspoken for a girl, but felt the need for a layer of fiction as in American Wife.

So I was looking forward to the speculative material, which begins in 1974 when evidence of Bill Clinton’s chronic infidelity and sex addiction comes to light. He warns Hillary that he’ll never get over his issues and will only hold her back in the future, so she’s better off without him. She takes him at his word and leaves Arkansas a single woman. I’m going to leave it there for plot summary. IF you want the juicy specifics and don’t mind spoilers, or you don’t think you’ll read the novel itself but are still curious to learn what Sittenfeld does with her what-if future scenario, you can continue reading in the marked section below. There’s a lot to think about, so I would welcome comments from others who have read the book.

As to my own general reaction, though: I was fully engaged in the blend of historical and fictional material and read the novel in big chunks of 50+ pages at a time. The made-up characters are as convincing as the real-life ones, and there are a few relationships I found particularly touching. To my relief, there’s a satisfying ending and a couple of central figures get a pleasing comeuppance. But the chronology has an abrupt start and stop pattern, going deep into one time period or scene and then rushing forward, and I was left wondering what happened next, even if it would require another 400 pages. This would almost be better suited to some kind of serial format – it’s like the best kind of summer binge reading/watching.

My rating:

Rodham will be published in the UK on July 9th by Doubleday. I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley. My thanks to the publisher and publicists for arranging my early access.

 

I was delighted to be invited to help kick off the blog tour for Rodham. See below for details of where other reviews will be appearing soon.


SPOILERS ENSUE; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

The alternative history section of the novel picks up in 1991, when Hillary Rodham is on the law faculty at Northwestern University in Illinois, not far from where she grew up. She and James, a married colleague with whom she flirts harmlessly, are glued to the TV as news of Thurgood Marshall’s retirement from the Supreme Court and replacement by conservative African-American judge Clarence Thomas is complicated by a sexual harassment claim brought by Anita Hill. (It’s impossible not to see history repeating itself with Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.) In the wake of this scandal, Rodham’s gay friend Greg Rheinfrank, a Democratic strategist and all-round great character, suggests that she run for the U.S. Senate – Washington, D.C. could clearly use more of a progressive female presence. Even though it eventually involves running against a (real-life) Black female, she agrees and wins in 1992, becoming a multi-term senator and running for president three times, starting with the 2004 race and culminating with 2016.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton has married and divorced twice and is now a tech billionaire living in California and rumored to attend sex parties. A sex scandal quickly derailed his first presidential campaign in 1992, but in 2015 he decides to run again, thereby competing with his own ex-girlfriend for the Democratic nomination (at his rallies, “Shut her up!” becomes a popular chant that he tolerates from the crowd). Rodham makes it clear to her staff that he should not become president because he is a sexual predator.

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaking in Iowa, January 2016. Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0).

But here a curious compromise comes into play: Donald Trump has a bone to pick with Clinton, so after some rigorous courting from Rodham and her staffers, he agrees to endorse her. In the novel, then, Clinton and Trump are like villainous twins: wealthy narcissists who devalue women. Trump is only differentiated by his lack of class and intelligence. He still tweets, spouts odious opinions and comes across as a buffoon, but – crucially – doesn’t run on the Republican ticket. Instead, it’s Jeb Bush, and Rodham beats him by 2.9 million votes.

So, whew! – a satisfying ending. At points I feared that Sittenfeld would conclude that, despite all that was different after Rodham rejecting Clinton, she still would have lost to Donald Trump. Instead, the novel envisions defeat for Clinton and comeuppance for Trump when he’s indicted for tax fraud in New York. It’s, of course, a vision of “what should have happened” (versus Hillary’s own account in What Happened). But in the back of my mind was the thought that, really, you could have just printed one sentence, “What if the USA didn’t still use that stupid electoral college system?” and you would have gotten the same outcome, because in 2016 HRC won the popular vote by that same 2.9 million.

Specific scenes and elements that I loved:

  • Through her (fictional) childhood best friend, Maureen Gurski, we get an alternative vision of what life could have been like had Rodham married and had children; Maureen’s daughter Meredith becomes like a surrogate daughter for her.
  • In 2015 Rodham becomes close to Misty, a supporter who’s battling breast cancer, and has her speak to open a rally for her.
  • She goes on a stoned bonehead’s radio show and storms out in protest at his sexism – I totally got vibes of Leslie Knope on Crazy Ira and The Douche’s radio show (that’s a Parks and Recreation reference, in case you’re not familiar with it).
  • Rodham gets a late chance at romance: there’s a “First Boyfriend” who seems just right for her.
  • This isn’t a hagiography: Sittenfeld includes instances when Rodham is tone-deaf about race and chooses pragmatism over the moral high road (e.g. campaign funding).
  • Sittenfeld found ways to incorporate real speech from press conferences, campaign announcements, etc. I also recognized two verbatim lines from the infamous “baking cookies” remarks HRC gave to reporters in 1992 (in the novel this happens in 2004).

Ultimately, I think Rodham doesn’t work as well as American Wife because we already know too much about Hillary, from her three published (ghostwritten) memoirs and from her being so much in the public eye since 1992. Whereas Laura Bush was something of a mystery, and American Wife introduced a comfortable cushion of fiction, Rodham is a little too in-your-face with its contemporary history and its message. But it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.

If you have made it all the way to the end of this extended review, give yourself a pat on the back!

30 responses

  1. Like you, I love Sittenfeld’s work, but I have read such mixed reviews about this one that I haven’t been rushing to read it. Now I’ve tackled your mega-review (well done!) I feel more disposed to give it a go … though not at the expense of actually buying it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It falls somewhere in the middle of her oeuvre for me, on a par with Sisterland and Eligible. Maybe your library can be persuaded to buy a copy?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m sure it will. It’s pretty good actually, but I’m waiting for their budget to be decimated post Covid.

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  2. Carolyn L. Anthony | Reply

    I patted myself on the back!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My enthusiasm for this one has been tempered by mixed reviews and a warning from Naomi Frisby who I know is a fan as we both are. I think I’ll leave it for pleasure rather than review. Thanks for your spoiler warnings! I’ve skipped them

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a good summer binge read for me, even if it doesn’t match up to her best work. I miss seeing Naomi about on social media and in the blogging world.

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  4. Thanks so much for the blog tour support Rebecca x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the chance to read this! I was desperate to get hold of it somehow.

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  5. Like you, I love Sittenfeld’s work but given that I can answer yes to at least three if not four of the questions that you posed at the beginning of this post and that like other commentators I’ve been troubled by the very mixed reviews, I’m still not quite certain whether I’m going to read it or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t say it’s essential. But if it falls in your lap, you might as well!

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  6. This actually sounds pretty rad – I enjoy alt-history and even if there isn’t the possibility of quite as thick a cushion of fiction here as with American Wife, this’ll be up my alley, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad I could entice you! If you think it’s the sort of thing you’ll like, you probably will. A good summer binge of a book.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This sounds great fun. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of Hillary Clinton (though obviously I’d have voted for her if I was eligible to vote in the US!), but neither was I a huge fan of Laura Bush, so I’m confident Sittenfeld can make it work. It helps that I adore what-ifs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Then according to my rubric you have several reasons to read and enjoy! I know you’ll be delighted when your pre-order arrives.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have An American Wife so I think I’ll try it first. I’m not a huge Hillary fan, but I don’t thik it would make any difference to my enjoyment of the book. I now you really rate An American Wife so I might get to is soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. American Wife is one of my favourites, yes. I really need to reread it. (I just hope it can live up to my memories of it!)

      Like

  9. Alyson Woodhouse | Reply

    I’ve always been intrigued by Hillary Clinton, though perhaps not enough to read this book, as like everyone else, I’ve read some pretty mixed reviews. Oddly enough though, you’ve made me want to read An American wife, it sounds as though it is a better novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. American Wife is the better novel, for sure. But this one is perfectly enjoyable as well.

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  10. I’m not reading this whole post because I’m a quarter of the way through the book. Like you, I’m a Sittenfeld fan, so the question of whether to read Rodham was a no-brainer. I plodded through the first part of the book – was she info-dumping? Setting the scene for what we ALL KNOW WHAT HAPPENED IN REAL LIFE? Anyway, it’s picking up the pace now and I’m settling into Hilary’s voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The first third was a slog for me because I was so familiar with her early life story from her first memoir. But it definitely does pick up from there! I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts once you finish.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. buriedinprint | Reply

    Like you, I’ve read it all, although when American Wife was published, I was fairly sure that I wouldn’t be keen, so the fact that I did enjoy and admire it made me wonder whether that would be true again (or whether it would feel like a trick-already-played, or whether the fact that I was paying more attention to politics in recent years would interfere with the idea of this being fiction, etc.) When I saw her interviewed at the public library, she spoke about writing this book, and I was so surprised that she was revisiting the concept, but now it seems like “well, of course, why not”. What surprised me even more was the comment expressed between the two women seated in front of me at that event, about how they felt that Sittenfeld should have presented herself with more attention to her grooming and wardrobe, whereas I was pleased to see her look so approachable and comfortable. Had I not taken notes at the event, I would probably have forgotten much of what the author had to say, but the judgeyness of these two women sticks in my mind! (I skipped your spoilery bits; I hope that I remember to come back when I’ve read it myself.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I envy you getting to see her in person. She gets a lot of stick for her appearance / not being photogenic. There was a really interesting article a few years back about author photos that made reference to her latest one (which I think was taken by a sibling, so she looked relaxed and happy, as opposed to solemn or uptight, as so many men do in their Important Author photos!).

      I felt Rodham didn’t work as well as American Wife because we already know too much about Hillary, but I’ll be interested in your take if and when you do read it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        I hadn’t heard about that, so maybe these women were aware of that criticism and attended with the intention to assess and measure as wanting. *sigh* It’ll also be interesting because what you might know about her and what I might know about her, based on our being on different sides of the US/Canada border might also figure in. Have you read her memoir (memoirs?)? Or seen the film (films?)? Or has your experience mostly been gathered along-the-way?

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    2. I’ve read her first memoir, Living History, and own the second to pick up soon. What Happened I could then get from the library any time.

      https://www.racked.com/2017/11/21/16624768/author-photo-outfits

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  12. […] Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! Next month’s starting book will be Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (see my review). […]

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  13. […] best two summer binge reads this year were Rodham and Americanah; my two summery classics, though more subtle, were also perfect. Mostly Dead Things […]

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  14. […] book I’ve not read, but one which comes recommended by many including Rebecca, it’s on my wishlist and I’ll look out for it in the library. A ‘what if?’ […]

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  15. […] month we’re all starting with Rodham. I reviewed this Marmite novel as part of the UK blog tour and was fully engaged in its blend of historical and […]

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