Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld
Perhaps I am displaying my age, and possibly also—although I hope not; but if so, it is regrettable—some gender stereotyping, but I automatically assumed that a person called Curtis would be male: not so. I know I am somewhat prejudiced against American culture, so perhaps I had better not fulminate, but it now seems impossible to assume a person’s gender from the given name, which makes life somewhat less predictable, and for an older person, that can be occasionally unsettling. This book is categorised as “a novel”, but I eschewed including that in its title, as that is not entirely clear; there is a qualifying line under the effective subtitle—the main title being displayed vertically, over a sepia-toned photograph of a younger Hillary—which reads: “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?”, and this crystallises the “sliding doors” scenario on which this story is based. I can’t say I’m more than slightly interested, in general, in American politics, but they can have far-reaching repercussions & implications, and Bill & Hillary Clinton were two of the best known, and possibly divisive [although that surely comes with the territory?] personalities in recent American political history.
I have to assume—lazily, of course, but then again, I’m reviewing it: not writing it!—that the majority of, if not all of the events which occurred before the bifurcation in Hillary Rodham’s life story are true; or, at least, predominantly true. The narrative is actually in three parts: the first is the, presumably, essentially true part, and the following two are Hillary Rodham’s life as she progresses in her career, free of any commitment to Bill Clinton, which she relinquishes in 1974, so a large part of her fictional life must be very different from her real one. Given that this is novel, and not a biography/memoir/hagiography, or anything similar, it is impossible to reveal any other than general details of her later life, which must be discovered from the book. How plausible a life arc it might be is impossible for me to say, but she does seem, from her early life, and stated beliefs & commitments [the narrative is written in the first person], to be the sort of person who would, very probably, have endeavoured to achieve what she does in this story.
Growing up female, albeit white, in postwar America, meant that she would encounter much opposition to her forthright political opinions, so the fact that she espoused & supported causes which promoted women, and people of colour—an underclass at that time—is very easy to believe, but she never considered herself physically attractive, which is why it was so surprising to her that Bill Clinton was attracted to her; and all the more galling when she realised how highly sexed he was. In a nutshell, the latter is the primary reason why she decides not to marry him here: no matter how much he pledged himself to her, which she did believe, he also couldn’t promise, in a way she could believe, that he would never stray, so his post-bifurcation career progresses in a very different way from reality. He doesn’t become president in 1996: this falls to one of the contemporary front-runners, Jerry Brown, with Bob Kerrey as his VP. The following two presidencies are also different: John McCain and Sam Brownback in 2000 and 2004. History gets back on track in 2008 & 2012, with Barack Obama & Joe Biden.
The narrative ends after the 2016 election; outcome not to be revealed; but Donald Trump’s predilection for litigation notwithstanding, he figures highly in this contest, and it is probably well nigh impossible to write something that might have exited his mouth which is [allegedly] so stupid that he couldn’t have said it! Despite this being a novel, in which the author can make the characters do whatever he or she wants, I am not entirely convinced that events could have turned out the way Ms Sittenfeld writes them; also, the conclusion seems to happen very quickly, in contrast to the slow, and very detailed progression from Hillary’s childhood; and, finally, the continual time-shifting can become wearisome—not specifically disingenuous, but why reveal something from an earlier time period later in the book, when it could have been revealed earlier, when that period was covered previously? Having said all that, I did enjoy reading this book, because Hillary [now] Clinton is a very interesting character, who was badly treated by the political circus, the media, and inevitably by extension, the American public: interesting as fiction, of course. The paperback I read was published in 2021 , by Penguin Random House, London, ISBN 978-0-5527-7660-8.