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:
- You (if American) voted for Hillary Clinton or (if not) admire her and think she should have won the 2016 presidential race.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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!
You Think It, I’ll Say It: Stories by Curtis Sittenfeld
“Oh, our private habits, our private selves—how strange we all are, how full of feelings and essentially alone.”
You could say that Curtis Sittenfeld is the reason I’m a book reviewer. Back when I worked as a library assistant in London, I filled the hours of tedium by writing one- or two-paragraph responses to every book I read, but these just sat in a Word file and never saw the light of day. I had so little confidence in my writing that I didn’t show these proto-reviews to anyone, not even on Goodreads. One day in 2011, though, I saw that Stylist magazine was looking for a temporary books columnist; to be considered you had to submit a 100-word review of your favorite book by a woman. I chose Sittenfeld’s American Wife, her masterfully introspective 2008 novel from the perspective of a fictionalized Laura Bush. It was great practice in being concise, that’s for sure, and Stylist chose me as a finalist. (You can see my 100-word review here.) From there it went to public voting on the website. Alas, I didn’t win, but it was the first time I got recognition for a book review, and I was hooked. When I left my job in 2013 to go freelance, I was determined that reviewing would be part of my work.
Sittenfeld is still one of my favorite authors, and I’ve read everything she’s written. Like Maggie O’Farrell and Carolyn Parkhurst, her work is perfectly balanced between women’s fiction and literary fiction and she describes families and romantic relationships expertly, in prose so deliciously smooth it slides right down. If you’re a fan of her novels, I would certainly recommend these 11 short stories to you. They’re about marriage, parenting, authenticity, celebrity and social media in Trump’s America, with the two key recurring elements of role reversal and retrospect.
The opening story, “The Nominee,” which only appears in the U.K. edition, feels like a natural follow-up to American Wife. Though never named, the narrator is clearly Hillary Clinton, and in a voice that’s consistent with her memoirs she ponders her struggle to earn popular appeal: “The typical American voter doesn’t wish to share a beer with me.” It’s 2016 and she’s about to be interviewed by a younger female journalist who has written about her dozens of times. Back in 2002 she was compassionate when this journalist fell apart during an interview, but she knows not to expect the same courtesy in return. No, she fully expects to be burned. But still the nominee truly believes she’ll win, as the opposite outcome would be catastrophic.
Yet that’s the reality in the final story, “Do-Over,” which was shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. In the wake of Trump’s election, Clay hears from Sylvia, a high school classmate, out of the blue and meets up with her for dinner in Chicago. She’s still sore about the sexist nature of the election at Bishop Academy in which, despite having tied, she was given the patronizing, made-up role of “assistant prefect” while Clay was named senior prefect. Sylvia has engineered this fake date as a gift to herself, to see what could happen, and she’s going to behave as badly as she wants.
The role reversal is clearest in “Gender Studies” and “A Regular Couple.” In the former, Nell, a gender studies professor, accidentally uses a taxi driver for sex. In the latter, Maggie is on her honeymoon with Jason; though they’re both lawyers, she recently handled a sportsman’s rape trial and earns 20 times what Jason does in nonprofit immigration law. There’s another flipping of positions in this one: among the other honeymooners at their ski resort is Ashley Frye, who was one of the popular girls at Maggie’s high school and made her feel awkward and inferior. But Maggie’s TV appearances have given her an aura of celebrity: now she’s the popular one, and she has an idea for how to get revenge on Ashley.
The most similar to Sittenfeld’s early fare is “Vox Clamantis in Deserto,” in which a college student loses her virginity under bizarre circumstances in 1994. Several stories involve a dual time setting: a decade or more later, characters reflect on the strange turns their lives have taken to get them where they are now and have a chance to rethink the decisions they made.
My favorite single story is “Plausible Deniability,” the only time I can think of that Sittenfeld has used a male point-of-view. The narrator is William, a 41-year-old lawyer in St. Louis who has distinctly different relationships with his brother and his sister-in-law. There’s a clever surprise in this one, as there is later on in “The Prairie Wife,” and it makes you ask about the various ways there are of being close with another person.
Other stories concern new mothers’ guilt and compromises, the temptation of adultery, and the danger of jealousy and making up your mind about someone too soon. I was less sure about “Volunteers Are Shining Stars,” voiced by a character with OCD and set among African-Americans at a family shelter in Washington, D.C., and I thought “Off the Record” was a bit too similar to “The Nominee.” Overall, though, this is a whip-smart, current and relatable book, ideal for readers who don’t think they like short stories.
You Think It, I’ll Say It is published in the UK today, May 3rd, by Doubleday. My thanks to the publisher for the free review copy.
A President’s Day Reading Special
Today is President’s Day in the States, which was instituted to jointly celebrate the February birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and is more about feting historical presidents than the current one (thank goodness). I’ve recently read four books that shed light on some American presidents: a brand-new novel, two memoirs, and a zany travel book.
White Houses by Amy Bloom (2018)
April 1945: Franklin D. Roosevelt is dead. His widow Eleanor goes to New York City to spend a long weekend with her lover, former White House reporter Lorena Hickok. Lorena, our feisty narrator, recalls her abusive upbringing in South Dakota, her early days as a reporter, and the flirtation that arose when she interviewed Eleanor about her governor husband’s presidential campaign. The open secret of FDR’s affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, is contrasted with Eleanor and Lorena’s relationship – and with the situation of Eleanor’s cousin Parker Fiske, a closeted homosexual. Lorena’s voice is enjoyable, but I felt I gained no particular insight into Eleanor or Franklin Roosevelt. Bloom aims to reconcile Eleanor’s frumpy image with her passionate secret self, but for me that never fully happened. The most interesting scenes are from Lorena’s time working for a circus freak show on her way to Chicago (presumably completely made up). While Bloom had access to letters that passed between Lorena and Eleanor, she emphasizes that this is a work of fiction.
[Neat little connection: As First Lady, Hillary Clinton felt a kinship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and visited her portrait in the Oval Office to have imaginary chats and buck up her courage. These are described in a chapter of Living History entitled “Conversations with Eleanor.”]
Living History: Memoirs by Hillary Rodham Clinton (2003)
I may be showing my political colors with this choice. However, in my defense, I have also read memoirs by Laura Bush and Sarah Palin, both of which, like this, are rumored to have been ghostwritten. (In her acknowledgments Clinton mentions Lissa Muscatine as “Responsible for many of the words in my speeches as First Lady and in this book”.) The first few chapters, about Clinton’s early years and college days, are rather plodding, but once she meets Bill at Yale Law School in 1971 things pick up, and I found the whole informative and diverting. I hadn’t realized that Clinton was an accomplished lawyer in her own right, focusing on women’s and children’s rights and family law. She was also a researcher on the Nixon impeachment case – an experience that, ironically, came in handy three decades later.
Clinton is honest and self-deprecating about her image issues. She was a whole new breed of First Lady, chairing the committee for Bill’s health care bill and making state visits. Her Beijing speech is still a touchstone for international feminism. Inevitably, a good chunk of the book is devoted to the investigations that plagued the Clinton administration. The eight years of Bill’s presidency are very much the focus; the book ends with them saying a final farewell to the White House. By this point, though, Clinton had been elected a New York senator, so she left for a new mission. I picked up a secondhand copy of Hard Choices the other week and look forward to learning more about her time as a senator and then Secretary of State.
[Neat little connection: Roland Mesnier and his sweet creations get two mentions in Living History: the giant carrot cake he made for Chelsea’s sixteenth birthday; and the book-shaped cake for her graduation.]
All the Presidents’ Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House, A Memoir by Roland Mesnier with Christian Malard [trans. from French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie] (2007)
Roland Mesnier was the White House pastry chef for 25 years. After training in France and Germany, he worked at the Savoy in London and then as head pastry chef at the Princess Hotel, Bermuda – all by age 20. His specialty was intricate sugar sculptures, for which he won international competitions. He also worked in Paris and Virginia before hearing that Rosalynn Carter was looking for a White House pastry chef. Fast-tracked to U.S. citizenship, he made elaborate desserts for presidential family occasions and state dinners. The latter were always based on research into a particular country’s culture, products, taste and traditions. These impressive constructions included molded sorbets, petits fours and marzipan figures, and were often feats of logistics and timing. The memoir is undoubtedly more interesting for what it tells about the First Families (Nancy Reagan was a hard taskmistress; Barbara Bush was his personal #1) than for its author’s life. An appendix includes 15 fairly simple (i.e., replicable at home!) recipes from his 2004 cookbook Dessert University, such as pecan bourbon pie and baked apple soufflé.
(I must also marvel at the journey that this particular book has been on. It is signed by the English translator and inscribed to her mother: “Mum, with all love, Louise – 8 May 2007”. This hardback copy somehow made it all the way to the £1 bargain shelves outside the upper level of the castle in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, where my husband snatched it up last spring.)
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (2005)
U.S. history has never been so much fun! There’s nothing Sarah Vowell loves more than a presidential plaque, monument, home or grave, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Over half of this book is about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination; the rest goes to those of James Garfield and William McKinley (attempts on T. Roosevelt and Reagan get a brief mention, but she pretty much avoids JFK – presumably because that would fill a book of its own). If all you remember about these last two assassins is that one was a disgruntled civil servant and the other was an anarchist with a funny name, let Vowell enlighten you with her mixture of travel and trivia. She follows John Wilkes Booth’s escape route from the nation’s capital, traces Charles Guiteau back to upstate New York’s Oneida community, and sympathizes with Leon Czolgosz’s hard early life. The book came out in 2005, and what with Vowell’s outrage over the Dubya administration, it does feel a little dated. But if the rest of her books are this nerdy-cool, I’ll be reading them all.