Book review: Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sunday, May 24, 2020 Permalink

I don’t read non-fiction. On the whole I dislike memoirs intensely. I hear great things about some, such as Michelle Obama’s Becoming or Reckoning by Magda Szubanski. And yet… I avoid them like the plague. I’ve made some recent attempts (Bri Lee’s Beauty and Clare Bowditch’s Your Own Kind of Girl) but they either feel like a university case study or I struggle with their logic and structure. Although, perhaps I’m just too self-absorbed to be that interested in someone else’s life. Who knows?

I would normally have eschewed Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, assuming it to be yet another memoir. But thankfully a book-blogging friend Simon (Written by Sime) had mentioned this book and his love for it a while ago. So I knew it was fiction. About the road not taken. A reimagining if you like.

Book review: Rodham by Curtis SittenfeldRodham: What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Published by Doubleday
on 19/05/2020
Source: Penguin Random House Australia
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 0857526138
Pages: 432


‘Awfully opinionated for a girl’ is what they call Hillary as she grows up in her Chicago suburb. Smart, diligent, and a bit plain, that’s the general consensus.

Then Hillary goes to college, and her star rises. At Yale Law School, she continues to be a leader— and catches the eye of driven, handsome and charismatic Bill. But when he asks her to marry him, Hillary gives him a firm No.

The rest, as they say, isn’t history. How might things have turned out for them, for America, for the world itself, if Hillary Rodham had really turned down Bill Clinton?

While I’m confessing to my peccadillos I should also mention I’m not interested in US politics. At the moment—in particular—it horrifies me. I’ve also not delved into the back-door dealings of my own Australian government, though there’s certainly been a barrage of books on offer.

And yet—I ADORED, absolutely ADORED this book. It is, in essence, a book about a smart and ambitious woman. About her internal battle between traditional values, feminism, equality and basic human desires. She struggles with romantic love and seems to feel a sense of weakness in her desire to be loved and admired. And, though she wants to be respected and loved for her brain, she’s fearful (and learned the lesson when young) that boys and men might be attracted to her intelligence but not her physicality.

I went into this with no idea how Sittenfeld wrote the book… ie. what was fact or fiction. What she knew or didn’t. Who was real or who wasn’t. My ignorance of the American political and power-broking landscape is such that many of the players mentioned might, or might not be real.

I was agape at the unabashed naked ambition of many we meet here. Not just Bill Clinton and Hillary obviously. But others around them. And I can only imagine their own aspirations meant they hung with others similarly inclined – intelligent, ambitious, well-connected or at least rich.

The methodical planning of one’s career in a political sense and single-mindedness is quite foreign to me. I haven’t been exposed to it much, other than via the West Wing on TV. I think of particular interest with both Bill and Hillary (as far as I could gather) is that neither were from particularly politically active families. (Though interestingly both from fairly dysfunctional families!)

My assumption has always been that those who find politics early have been exposed to the inner-dealings from a young age. They have a sense they’re able to influence policy and have a voice. That there’s a space for them at the table.

I would never have conceived of such a thing growing up. Or at university. I mean… I’ve worked with A LOT of elected officials, at the Federal level in Australia in my days as a diplomat, in State Government and Local Government. I’ve met some very impressive politicians and some that make you wonder who ties their shoelaces. Some destined for greatness, and others there out of some sense of duty.

Political and / or factual stuff aside, Sittenfeld does a great job with this as a novel. I would have been happy to read it as pure fiction. The relationship between Bill and Hillary—even though it only spans three or four years here—is incredibly powerful. We’re given a real sense of the intellectual interdependency feeding their relationship.

I knew plenty of smart people, but I’d never before encountered a person whose intelligence sharpened mine the way his did. His perspective both overlapped with and differed from mine so as to be challenging, reassuring and never boring.

I also, though I knew it would have sounded arrogant to express this to anyone other than Bill, enjoyed the rare experience of being the less impressive person—I was less articulate than he was, less charismatic, less knowledgeable about obscure congressional districts and Southern authors. How marvellous! It wasn’t that I was without an ego, immune to the gratification of seeming impressive, but impressing others was’t for me a goal unto itself… p 67

Sittenfeld jumps in time a little from the mid 1970s (the Sliding Doors moment) and that’s probably my only gripe here as it’s suddenly twenty years later. Hillary filled with so much potential, passion and ambition seems to have ‘settled’ to some extent. She’s still exceptional, but not remarkable. (If that makes sense!)

We spend some time in the early 1990s before leaping forward again to 2015. At least this time Sittenfeld takes us back in time on a few occasions to give us a sense of the events that have shaped who Hillary has become.

The insight into Hillary herself is just mind-blowing. I have no idea how much it resembles the real person. I know practically nothing about the real-life Hillary Clinton.

Sittenfeld (well, Hillary) pulls no punches when it comes to Bill Clinton and his philandering ways. Again, we know a little about that but here it’s front and centre and featured as if public record.

For most of the novel I think Sittenfeld manages to balance Hillary the person vs Hillary the high-achiever. Not that they’re mutually exclusive of course, but there’s a lot of reflection on policy vs personality, as well as friendships, family, love and sex (including post-menopausal sex) for example.

This is certainly a book about politics, political game-playing and power-broking. But it’s also a book about ambition and desire. About confidence and hubris. About privilege and principles. And it’s a book about love, obsession and heart vs head choices.

One of Sittenfeld’s previous books, American Wife, is supposedly based on Laura Bush so there’s an obvious interest in politics and women’s roles in the political landscape. As someone who doesn’t know where the boundary between fact and fiction lies, this feels seamlessly done. The Hillary Clinton I now have in my head is the likeable and relatable Hillary Rodham we meet here.

NB. I read through the acknowledgements after the book and there’s a myriad of other resources quoted, including some of Hillary’s own memoirs. It didn’t really help me know how much of the events of these books or the thoughts attributed to Hillary are true. And I’ve decided I actually like being unsure. I can draw my own conclusions.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld was published in Australia by Penguin and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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