The action is all highly enjoyable – including a killer cameo appearance by Donald Trump – and, whether or not you buy the political fantasy, as a novel it is a delight. It’s an irony of the book that, while seeking to rescue Hillary from caricature, it ends up being a kind of love letter to a type: the American bluestocking and female intellectual, who is given none of the licence of her less talented male peers. At the end, which I won’t spoil, I actually said out loud: “Oh, my God” – and, to my amazement, found myself moved.
The notion of a parallel universe in which Hillary keeps her own name and identity is beguiling. Yet the author cannot quite bring herself to complete the separation of this well-known couple, repeatedly bringing Bill, who becomes a tech billionaire, back into Hillary’s orbit. This has the perverse effect of turning Hill-without-Bill into a sad stereotype, a woman whose stellar career is a consolation prize for the loss of a dazzling first love. Sittenfeld endows her Hillary with the guts to dump a serial shagger – three cheers for that! – but it would have been much more interesting if she’d also allowed her to get over him.
The novel is on Hillary’s side. I just wish there was more interest – more fun – in the life Sittenfeld has concocted for her. Reading James Naughtie’s recent account of meetings with Hillary Clinton made her seem not only intelligent (as we’ve always been told she is) but rather more interesting than the common perception of her. Sittenfeld gives us nothing that isn’t in that public perception. Sad to say, the occasional moments when Bill re-enters the narrative are quite welcome. But the truth surely is that it was marriage to Bill that gave drama to Hillary’s life. Which is why a biography has more to offer than this dull exercise in make-believe.
Well, the idea of the first black president was a lot more than a proxy for African American rights, and that of the FWP should command a dynamic, powerful vision. But next to the living Hillary, the fictional one looks tame. In a New York Timesinterview on May 9, Sittenfeld admitted that, in researching her book, she fell in love with Bill: “I consciously thought ‘If it were 1975 and Bill Clinton wanted me to move to Arkansas and marry him, I would do it’”. Despite her virtues and his flaws, the novel implies, the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Rodham was marrying the man from Hope.
Sittenfeld is usually a sparkling storyteller and, here, she’s a convincing ventriloquist, but the functional first third of Rodham often plods as it dutifully lays the groundwork. Fortunately, as Hillary finds her groove, so the momentum and entertainment builds — as does your admiration for how ingeniously yet plausibly Sittenfeld has rewritten the script.
Sittenfeld has crafted a brilliantly smart reimagining of the life of a woman at the heart of American politcs, asking the question- what if Hillary never married Bill Clinton? The alternative history that unfolds makes for an intriguing read.
It is clear that Sittenfeld’s intentions were good. The author is excellent at interrogating the explicit and implicit sexism that hampers women at all strata of society; her great skill is in identifying the minutiae of life at a micro level that drives society at its most macro. The right questions are asked, but the narrative often shies away from definitively answering them. Whereas the original short story offers something revelatory, the novel offers much less illumination and instead further obfuscates the truth of who the real Hillary may be.
Sittenfeld is such a likeable writer that even in flabbier moments (namely the nitty-gritty of political campaigning) she is engaging. Artistically, however, Rodham is limited by a feeling that it is only a whisker away from earnest hagiography. Hillary is mostly pure, selfless, honest, good. There are confessional moments (she shares, more than once, her need for post-menopausal lubricants), but her inner voice is carefully banal and upbeat. “I’m really grateful for everything I have,” she thinks at times of challenge. Even her grumps are judiciously phrased (“I didn’t love fundraising”). It feels like a public face. Without edge or messy darkness, it is more wish fulfilment than visceral character exposition, and this, while undeniably fun and thought-provoking, somehow feels weirdly naive.
Sittenfeld’s ideological sympathy for her subject is not in doubt. But despite the diligence of her research, the book winds up doing Clinton a disservice. There’s the accumulation of presumptuous conjecture, and a pedestrian aspect to this Hillary’s way of looking at the world – so little poetry to her observations, so little passion in her politics. Yes, Bill is painted worse than Hill; it’s his supporters who chant (in a tweak of the Trump rallies) “Shut her up!” But her sophomoric swooning over him in the early part of the book – not to mention toe-curling résumés of their lovemaking (“ ‘Hillary, I really enjoy discussing theology with you. I also enjoy doing lots of other things with you,’ and then he plunged inside me”) – hardly wins you over. And the further fictional Hillary gets from her first love, the more questions are begged (and left unanswered) about real Hillary’s spousal loyalty. It feels self-defeating.
But she doesn’t. She runs for president and wins the endorsement of Donald Trump. She even develops a relationship with a man who isn’t Bill and yet makes her happy. Hillary’s written voice is flat, and if you’ve slogged through her memoirs, you might hesitate before reading a pastiche. But by tilting history on its side, Sittenfeld makes Hillary seem a fresh character and remarkably sympathetic.
At its strongest, Rodham explores the mysterious territory between the inner and outer lives of a person who has long been a source of fascination, adulation and loathing. Whether ironically or not, in regards to real-world dynamics, Bill Clinton proves the most reliable catalyst for exposing and befouling this territory in Hillary Rodham’s life, as when he calls to let her know he’s running for the 2016 Democratic nomination. She’s already in the race, yet he expects her to congratulate him for his cavalier plan, which he is also chuckling-sure will succeed over her carefully plotted counterpart.
Sittenfeld gives us a compelling account of the career Hillary might have had, complete with all the sexism and media chicanery she would have confronted on her path to the Oval Office. Among the real-life characters she encounters is Carol Moseley Braun, the first woman of colour to be elected to the Senate. In this version, Hillary doesn’t believe Moseley Braun is organised enough to seal a victory and runs against her, prompting some chewy reflections on racial equality.
The game of the speculative part of the book is to consider what might have happened differently and what would have happened anyway, and this is a lot of fun. What is the result of happenstance and what of choice? Some incidents look familiar: the suicide of a colleague, the rise of Obama, the fact of Trump. Sittenfeld teases apart the strands of fate and weaves them together in a slightly altered pattern, but she does not change the personality of the actors, nor can she change society itself. Misogyny is a constant in this fictional Hillary’s life, too, though the men who incite it are crucially different. All through her journey, the book holds a certain dream intact – that, without Bill, our heroine might have become her proper self... Rodham is a wonderful, sad dream of what might have been – it contains so much yearning and so many regrets. It is impossible not to sympathise with the project, while still insisting that the best novels are about difficulty, compromise and moral hazard. American Wife was a real novel. Rodham is a political fiction, which is something else.
Sittenfeld won’t even grant those who mourned when Hillary lost, who are howling in pain through Trump’s term, a wholly golden catharsis. Along the way she has jettisoned the person who, however much he betrayed her, made her mind and body (and this novel) sing. Rodham is fan fiction that won’t even please the fans.
In Rodham, the veil is ripped away; written in the first person, this is the astonish- ingly intimate story of Hillary Rodham. Told in retrospect, it begins with Hillary remembering the first time she encountered Bill Clinton, at Yale Law School in 1970. She tells of their powerful connection, both intellectual and physical, but the novel diverges from real life at the point where, having moved to Arkansas to be with Bill after law school, she refuses his proposal of marriage. No spoilers here, but over the next four decades Hillary forges her own path and we see the private woman and her public life as Sittenfeld weaves real events seamlessly into her fictional tale. A stunning achievement.