by Amy Reardon
Today in America 2020, it is four months until the next presidential election and nothing is certain except our ever-growing regret that we did not elect the most qualified person for the job when we had the chance. But why not? And would it have made a difference if Hillary Clinton were not attached to Bill?
Enter Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth and boldest novel yet, a fictional story of Hillary’s life trajectory had she followed her own bright star instead of her husband’s. Delicious in its fantastical rewriting of history, the book’s most irresistible pull lies in the promise of the parallel life. For don’t we all secretly fear a better life might have been just around the corner, if only we had been brave enough? But the novel’s true brilliance lies deeper, in Sittenfeld’s examination of one key question: why didn’t we elect our first woman president in 2016? Was it her … or was it us?
Sittenfeld’s Hillary is talented and driven. She sees the humanity in everyone and wants to help improve people’s lives. In the novel as in real life, Hillary meets Bill in law school at Yale. They are each other’s perfect intellectual match. The attraction is magnetic, the sex is constant. Awkward, hard-working Hillary falls in love, and with this development, Sittenfeld shows us a Hillary who is human, someone who is perhaps not so different from us after all. (Though in classic Sittenfeld style, the author never allows “novel” Hillary the desires of her heart—“He was enormous and tender and he subsumed me”—without also asking us to question whether those desires serve her. “What could be better than being alone in a room with Bill Clinton?”)
What happens next is also universal, but for its common despair: Bill cheats. “His apparent talent for deceit—it was so disturbing, so insulting. How could I stay with a man like that? How had I been such a poor judge of character? And yet I believed what he’d said about his spirit and soul, I believed he wanted us to be together forever.” It is here, after the cheating one assumes, that the novel splits generally from reality and moves into make-believe. It is here Sittenfeld’s genius takes over as she leads us to inhabit a new possibility: what would happen if a woman chose not to make herself smaller to fit inside her relationship?
For anyone who tracks American politics, what follows in the novel is a glorious descent into an alternate reality. Out of nowhere, Sittenfeld opens a 24-year gap in history with a simple list, “American Presidents and Vice Presidents Elected 1988-2012,” reassigning the cast. All the loudest men on stage in American politics today remain on stage in Sittenfeld’s novel world, but rearranged. And while Sittenfeld deftly slides these men into their new slots in history, they all sound exactly like themselves. Early on, Bill tells Hillary, “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this during the women’s movement, but you have great tits.” Later, when Bill calls a wine “velvety and structured,” he asks, “does saying that make me sound sophisticated or like an asshole?” Hillary responds, “Why choose?”
To share more would be to spoil the plot twists that make Rodham a true joy to read, which brings us to the great seriousness of this work. Rodham is the first novel I have read in which the author slices open and holds up for examination the very specific grief that I and every woman I know carries since the 2016 presidential election, when instead of electing our first woman president, we installed a liar, a cheat, a racist, and a sexual predator. A grief that was compounded two years later when Christine Blasey Ford stood before Congress and testified to her sexual assault by a Supreme Court nominee, after which he was appointed anyway. I don’t know a woman who wasn’t changed permanently by watching this public demonstration of men wielding power, or who is not seriously grappling with her own complicity in this system.
In Rodham, young Hillary comes to understand being a girl puts her generally up for question. “Maureen’s father smiled unpleasantly from across the table. He said, ‘You’re awfully opinionated for a girl.’” The scene takes place at a birthday party, when Hillary is ten. “It was not the first time someone had said such a thing … But Mr. Gurski’s remark was the sentiment’s clearest and most succinct expression in my life thus far and gave me, henceforth, a kind of shorthand understanding of the irritation and resentment I provoked in others.”
How the tears fell down my face, that November morning after Election Day 2016, when real-life Hillary said in her real-life concession speech, “To all the little girls watching … never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” In Rodham, Sittenfeld takes the time not only to catalog what we lost that day, but also to issue a warning of the dangers of dehumanizing a person, of making her into a symbol. As Sittenfeld’s Hillary explains during a debate in the novel, “It’s likely that there was never a time that you were aware that I existed without also being aware that I’m supposedly controversial, untrustworthy, or unlikable. And it’s very normal that if we’re told many times over many years that a person is untrustworthy or unlikable, we’ll believe it.”
Sittenfeld’s aim in Rodham, I suspect, is not to accurately reflect on the internal life of the specific real-life person named Hillary Clinton, but rather to inhabit this woman as a proxy, just like America did when it cast her as a polarizing force not for who she was but for what she represented and triggered in the minds of many Americans. Also, I’d like to think Rodham is the author’s wish for every woman who seeks to find her voice and inhabit life as her most authentic self. Finally, Rodham is a well-timed reflection on who we are as a country and the type of leadership we deserve. Call it a sexy beach read, call it a balm for our collective sorrow, call it whatever you want, just read it and discuss it with every woman you know before Election Day.
Amy Reardon’s work has appeared or is upcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Adroit Journal, Glamour, and The Coachella Review. Follow her @ReardonAmy.