Book Review

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State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

The fact that Mrs Clinton had been assisted by an established thriller writer for this story didn’t surprise me; I already knew of the former from her recently terminated political career, and I thought it might be interesting to discover what sort of a job she could do with a political thriller—politics at a high level being her primary area of expertise—having recently read a ‘what if?’ version of her life, reviewed here, but also without being aware of any of her other fiction writing, such as it might be: she has, according to the book’s flyleaf, written seven other books, including one with her daughter Chelsea, but from the titles, it seems most likely that they are all non-fiction [I could confirm that on t’internet, but, ya know…..], so it is probably a sensible guess that she provided the political ‘dope’, and Penny wrote it up. The latter’s name was vaguely familiar, but I soon realised that I had already read one of her books, albeit eighteen months ago [yay, memory!] and reviewed it here, A Great Reckoning.

It is jumping forward somewhat to reveal this, but I was quite gratified to discover that Penny’s primary protagonist in the aforementioned story also appears here, albeit late in the story and in a minor rôle, but as to what his involvement is, the Book Reviewer’s Code of Ethics absolutely forbids me to reveal it, so I won’t. The real identities of two of the principal characters are, to me anyway, immediately transparent: Secretary of State Ellen Adams is Clinton—having undertaken that function herself, so she should, by all rights, know what she’s talking [sic] about—and former President Eric Dunn [the story being written in 2020] is clearly Donald Trump, whose fictional character features highly in the story, although not as a main ‘player’. Adams’s personality is modelled on a former colleague in Congress, and the former’s best friend & advisor is modelled on her own best friend from school days, so they are well qualified to be realistic; Clinton also, graciously, credits her husband, “a great reader and writer [who knew? Not I] of thrillers, for his constant support and useful suggestions, as always”.

Dunn has been defeated in his reëlection attempt, and “After the past four years of watching the country she loved flail itself almost to death”, a fellow [of Adams] Democrat,  Douglas Williams, has been installed as President; there’s one major problem with that, and her current position in the new administration: “It had come as a huge shock when [Williams] had chosen a political foe, a woman who’d used her vast resources to support his rival for the party nomination … It was an even greater shock when Ellen Adams had turned her media empire over to her grown daughter and accepted the post.” So: she was never going to get an easy ride—self-inflicted? arguably—and her first foray into the literal & metaphorical world of international power-brokering, in South Korea, had been at best a failure, and could easily have been interpreted by those so disposed to do so as a fiasco. Not an auspicious start; so when a bus bomb explodes without any warning during the morning rush-hour in London, Adams suspects that she is going to be tested to the extreme, and that does, indeed, prove to be the case. What follows is a tense whirlwind of globetrotting negotiations, all the while trying to locate a psychopathically murderous arms dealer and prevent him carrying out his heinous threat, when the US government has identified it.

In politics, as in the world of espionage, one of the biggest problems is knowing whom to trust, and in Ellen Adams’s world, the dangers associated with making a mistake are gut-wrenchingly great, especially when highly-placed actors [in the life-rôle sense] remain from the previous administration, and this proves to be very testing & difficult for both Adams and Williams, especially given their previous antipathy, which they have no alternative but to work through, if they are going to thwart the jeopardy. The tension racks up very nicely during the narrative; Adams’s son, his girlfriend, and Adams’s daughter, Katherine, the media mogul, are closely involved, and there is even a literal countdown for a final escalation so, notwithstanding one’s attitude toward America’s militarism & arrogant, Christianity-dominated assumption of global moral advocate status, this is an excellent, albeit simultaneously worrying [if one takes the narrative too literally] thriller for our times. Perhaps it should have ended with the classic [British television, paraphrased] Crimewatch advice: “It’s alright: don’t have nightmares!” The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Macmillan] by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-7973-9.

Book Review

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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 [2020], by Penguin Random House, London, ISBN 978-0-5527-7660-8.