Curtis Sittenfeld has a knack of putting her readers in uncomfortable places in her fiction. In her short story “Gender Studies” she puts you in the middle of a hotel tryst between a Clinton-supporting professor and a younger Trump-supporting shuttle bus driver. In “You Think it, I’ll Say It”, the title story of her recent excellent collection, a woman leaves her husband for her flirtatious crush, only to be spurned by him. In her story “The Nominee” a journalist vomits on Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In Sittenfeld’s latest novel Rodham she returns to the former First Lady, but with a twist. Rodham is virtual history told via Hillary’s imagined memoir, with a focus on her personal inner life more so than her political career. The book is propelled by the “what if” thought experiment that in 1975 Hillary Rodham leaves Bill Clinton instead of deciding to marry him. Famously Bill asked Hillary to marry him thrice and she said “yes” on the third occasion. In Rodham the couple confronts Bill’s “sex addiction” and Hillary reluctantly leaves him. This plot device works, turning Rodham into an alternative reality page-turner and a welcome escapist read in these difficult times.
Sittenfeld has a real talent for writing about vulnerability and desire. Her knowledge of, and feel for, American politics is also very impressive. She draws on this ample array of skills to pull off the feat of writing a novel in the first-person voice of Hillary Rodham that spans from her childhood to the present. Much could have gone awry attempting this, but it doesn’t.
Rodham does an excellent job at detailing the many forms of sexism that women face in academia and politics. In the first part of the novel, Professor Rodham is a successful law academic whose male students and colleagues say things to that they would never say to male academics. Such double standards are also highlighted by Hillary Rodham once she enters politics as a Senator for Illinois. She laments: “The extra time female politicians were expected to spend on our appearance, known as the pink tax, amounted to an hour a day for me, but I’d learned the hard way that this was necessary. In the past, whenever I didn’t have my hair and makeup professionally done, the media would speculate about whether I was ill or exhausted.”
In a delicious plotline, Bill and Hillary end up competing against each other for the presidency which leads Hillary to ask: “You know when true equality will be achieved? When a woman with these kinds of skeletons in her closet has the nerve to run for the office.” The novel draws on the rumours published in Vanity Fair and elsewhere of Bill Clinton’s affairs and involvement in sex parties, as well as discussing the long-standing allegation that he raped a female campaign volunteer in the 1970s.
Below I will discuss other key moments in the book and how they play with, and depart from, the historical record. In the novel, the turning point in Hillary’s political career are the 1991 Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings. Despite clear evidence that Thomas had sexually harassed his former employee Anita Hill, a predominately male Senate confirmed and was thought to have gone soft on Thomas when questioning his past behaviour. Joe Biden chair of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate at the time, is one of the men accused of not asking the tough questions, although he did vote against Thomas’ confirmation. The backlash against these widely watched hearings led to 1992 being dubbed the “Year of the Woman” when a record number of women ran and were elected to the US Congress. In the novel Hillary in 1992 runs and defeats Carol Moseley Braun in the Democrat primary. In real life, Braun won this race to become the first-ever black female Senator. In the novel, this decision to run ends Hillary’s friendship with her long-time mentor Gwen Greenberger, an African American children’s right advocate and stand-in for a few significant figures in Hillary’s actual life including the very impressive Marian Wright Edelman (the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund). The novel also features a stand-in character for Hillary Clinton’s friend and fellow partner at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, Vince Foster, who killed himself in real-life leading to much speculation.
The next turning point in the novel is Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 1992 60 Minutes interview. I have watched the interview many times with my students as it is a watershed moment in the changing attitude of the media towards politicians’ sex lives. The interview is tough to first watch: why should any couple’s most private affairs be discussed on television like this. What good does it serve? On re-watching the interview for this review, I am struck by the effective way in which Bill and Hillary talk down the interviewer and control the narrative. Hillary particularly does this with her famous statement: “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honour what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together. And you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck—don’t vote for him.” It is credibly claimed in this article in Politico that Hillary’s strength in the interview saved Bill’s candidacy (although the piece typically comments on what Hillary was wearing on television and not on Bill’s attire). In the novel, Bill’s publicity-shy wife Sarah Grace Clinton breaks down and cries during the “60 Minutes Interview,” which ends his run for the presidency in 1992.
The novel has several plot twists from here on, such as Bill Clinton’s career as a Silicon Valley tech CEO, which I will not document in detail here as it would spoil the joys of reading this novel. Rodham does an excellent job dissecting the question of Hillary’s “likeability” and “acceptance” by the press and the American people. At one point she says: “The less you screw up, the more clearly the public keeps track of each error.” And later in a killer debate response (that I wish she had given in 2016), she says: “if you want someone to look out for the interests of the American people, for your family, for you – someone who understands the economy and education and health care and foreign policy…then vote for me.” In the real election in 2016, too many Americans ignored this appeal to experience and competence and tragically they have ended up with a president that cares little about governing or even the rising death toll of his own people. The truth has turned out to be more unbelievable than Sittenfeld’s fiction.