What If Hillary Never Married Bill? Why Curtis Sittenfeld’s 'Rodham' Is a Must Read
Welcome to Must Reads, where we review our favourite novels, memoirs, non-fiction books and more. For our first instalment, we review Curtis Sittenfeld's 2020 hit novel, Rodham, which you can shop now in The Reads. Collection.
Rodham, the new book by Curtis Sittenfeld—author of American Wife and Eligible, a re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice—is a book with a simple premise: what would Hillary Rodham's life have looked like if she never married Bill Clinton?
It's a tantalising question, and one that Sittenfeld has some form in. She's imagined a world from HRC's perspective once before, in her acclaimed 2018 short story collection, You Think It I'll Say It. In her other novel American Wife, Sittenfeld models her protagonist after former First Lady Laura Bush, wife of President George W. Bush. American Wife is a fascinating read, full of empathy and emotion. And so is Rodham.
Told in three parts, Rodham follows a fictional Hillary through law school, her years as a teacher, her first Senate campaign and then, ultimately, in 2016, a run at the presidency on her own. In each third, Hillary is seen as wrestling with the figure of Bill, her law school boyfriend and a man who looms large over her life.
In the first third of the book, young Hillary is a brilliant student whose life is broken open by Bill, a loud-mouthed charisma magnet from Arkansas. At the end of the first third, when Bill proposes marriage and Hillary turns him down, the novel takes a sharp turn into an alternate reality. In real life, this is the point where Hillary accepts Bill's proposal and the two of them get married.
In reality, the rest was history—Bill's rise in the world of politics, Hillary's own legal career, Bill's presidency and infidelity scandal, Hillary's run in the Senate and in the Obama administration, and then her unsuccessful bid at the presidency, all her hopes quashed by Donald Trump. In Rodham, Sittenfeld's fictional reimagining of Hillary's life, the repercussions of her decision to reject Bill's proposal reverberate through the years. What might Hillary's life look like, out of the shadow of a larger-than-life man? What might any woman's life, really?
Sittenfeld is one of the most gifted authors working today, and if you're a fan of any of her novels—from Prep, her first, about an elite boarding school and the shenanigans that go on within, to Sisterland, an eerie novel about twins with an innate connection—you'll definitely love Rodham.
If this is your introduction to Sittenfeld, just know that Rodham sparkles with her trademark playfulness and wit, as well as the enormous amount of empathy that she has for Hillary. There's a lot of tension in this book: when to play for laughs, and when to dig deep into Hillary's emotions. And, yes, if you've heard any of the rumours then we can confirm they are correct. There's also quite a few Hillary and Bill sex scenes in the book, too. Make of that whatever you will.
Writing about a real person—especially a hyper-real, very famous person like Hillary Clinton, or Bill, or even Donald Trump, who makes a bombastic cameo in the final third—is a very tricky line to walk. In American Wife, the characters' names (Laura and George W. Bush) were changed, which lends an air of fiction and allows you to lose yourself in the story. In Rodham, you are always aware that the main character of this book, speaking to the reader in the first person, and letting us into all of her vulnerabilities and anxieties and concerns, is a real person. A real person named Hillary Rodham. A real person that we know so much about, and that many women feel a connection or a kinship to.
It's both a blessing and a curse for Rodham. Readers bring all of their Hillary baggage to the book, and are met with a Hillary based on the real Hillary but also very much a figment of Sittenfeld's imagination. How you feel about that will really vary from person to person.
But what many have taken away from Rodham is how empowering it can be to rewrite history, even just a little bit, to swing the odds in the favour of someone you admire and respect deeply. That's what Rodham does for Hillary. It's worth reading for that alone.