Imagine if Hillary hadn’t married Bill. Would there have been no Clinton presidency? No NAFTA? No Ken Starr and Monicagate? And what would have happened to Hillary herself, an ambitious lawyer from Chicago with her own political aspirations?
Such is the subject of Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest, Rodham, which follows in the steps of her 2008 bestseller, American Wife (that one about the imagined inner life of Laura Bush).
The story begins with Secretary Clinton’s actual biography—finishing up her law degree at Yale and far too concerned with her life’s work and purpose to worry about dating. (Particularly lovely attention is given to the nightly “nest” she creates for herself in her bedroom, an “arrangement of tea, pillows, notebook, calendar and text books.”)
She meets Bill in the student lounge, and while she is certainly taken with his magnanimous Southern charm (and appetite for hamburgers), it is he who becomes smitten. He essentially moves in with Hillary and gives up his own summer plans to follow her to a job in San Francisco.
Sittenfeld, who is clearly fascinated with the way strong women do and don’t accept mistreatment, is quick to portray Hillary’s shrewd understanding of Bill’s faults. Within months of declaring his love for her, he has cheated and admitted his own “sick” sexual insatiability. But he is also kind, caring and clearly enamored with Hillary for the right reasons. These other women may be dalliances, but she’s the real deal.
According to Clinton’s actual memoir, Bill proposed to her many times before she said yes. But in this rewriting of history, Sittenfeld imagines that she ultimately says no, moving back to Chicago and pursuing a career in the Senate, before launching her own presidential primary campaign against—you guessed it—Bill himself.
Sittenfeld’s gift has always been the ability to zero in on the seemingly trivial moments that end up directing our lives—an afternoon spent watching the Anita Hill hearing with a colleague, a dinner with an ex-lover that you have gravely misread—and it’s this hyper-relatability that makes her novels so absorbing.
Ultimately, this fictionalized Hillary emerges as both calculating and compassionate, brilliant and foolish. But she also reflects back all the Catch-22s of modern womanhood. One should be strong but not chilly, pretty but not vain, smart but not threatening.
In real life, Sittenfeld seems to be saying, Hillary was never set up to win.