Editorial note: I received a copy of Rodham in exchange for a review.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is unlike anything I’ve read before. At the heart of the novel is taking a look at what happens when a woman isn’t defined by a man.
So first let me first say, you’ll know if you’re the audience for this book.
There are few politicians and public figures who create so much reaction within the general population ranging from love and admiration to disdain and hate. It’s safe to say that Hillary Rodham Clinton has received it all and then some. But whether you fall on either side of that equation or even if you’re indifferent, there’s no denying that the public perception of Hillary is very much tied to that of her husband Bill.
Because if you want to tackle policy and decision making, she’s done quite a bit. This is why President Obama said Hillary was the most experienced presidential candidate out there at the time. But again, the narrative became about Bill’s failures.
Hillary wrote a memoir about her time during the chaotic 2016 election. She wrote in What Happened: “My marriage to Bill Clinton was the most consequential decision of my life. I said no the first two times he asked me. But the third time, I said yes. And I’d it again.”
But say Hillary never married Bill. What could have happened to her life and career? That’s what Rodham takes a look at.
What if? Those two words are so profound. I think most people can see where they made a huge decision and it completely changed the trajectory of their life. But what would have happened if they took a different path? This isn’t the first time the author Curtis Sittenfeld has wrote a fiction novel about a still living figure—she focused on Laura Bush in American Wife. But Rodham takes this concept much further with exploring Hillary’s life if she didn’t marry Bill.
Curtis wrote for The Guardian that “I’d argue that it’s less that my novel grew out of my admiration for Hillary and more that my admiration grew out of my research about her.”
In 1971, Hillary Rodham is a young woman full of promise: Life magazine has covered her Wellesley commencement speech, she’s attending Yale Law School, and she’s on the forefront of student activism and the women’s rights movement. And then she meets Bill Clinton. A handsome, charismatic southerner and fellow law student, Bill is already planning his political career. In each other, the two find a profound intellectual, emotional, and physical connection that neither has previously experienced.
In the real world, Hillary followed Bill back to Arkansas, and he proposed several times; although she said no more than once, as we all know, she eventually accepted and became Hillary Clinton.
But in Curtis Sittenfeld’s powerfully imagined tour-de-force of fiction, Hillary takes a different road. Feeling doubt about the prospective marriage, she endures their devastating breakup and leaves Arkansas. Over the next four decades, she blazes her own trail—one that unfolds in public as well as in private, that involves crossing paths again (and again) with Bill Clinton, that raises questions about the tradeoffs all of us must make in building a life.
Reads like an intimate memoir
As I read this story, knowing fully that it’s a fictional take, I was so struck by how real it felt. I’ve read memoirs that felt more closed off compared to this story. Part of me wondered if Curtis will actually take off a mask Scooby-Doo style and reveal that Hillary is actually the real author of this story! I’m clearly kidding there but wow, this book is so deeply personal.
I remember during the campaign, there was always the complaint that Hillary is standoffish and an ice Queen type. Of course, men don’t seem to get that same type of criticisms. But I think it’s very interesting that Curtis really seem to get to the heart of Hillary in many ways. She is driven, capable, intelligent, competitive, cutthroat, which again, these are all qualities that we admire in men. But she’s also complicated, compassionate and seeks love just like everyone else. She just happened to fall for the wrong guy. But in this story, her instincts take over and she goes on a different path.
Curtis really dives into her relationship with Bill and the issues that it faced. I thought that was very interesting. I was also very engaged when the story diverges from reality and we follow Hillary as she charts her path as a politician.
She still deals with BS and misogyny and she can’t quite escape her past relationship with Bill both in public and private. But in this timeline, she’s able to stand on her own. The ending is much different than we experienced in real life. So it might make you sad and frustrated.
This is a very interesting exploration of fate, free will and the idea that there are different timelines for all of us.
Check out my book club questions here.