The first lady in 1997, before all hell broke loose (Photo: Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
The first lady in 1997, before all hell broke loose (Photo: Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

OPINIONBooksAugust 11, 2020

The novel that asks: what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?

The first lady in 1997, before all hell broke loose (Photo: Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
The first lady in 1997, before all hell broke loose (Photo: Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Linda Burgess reviews Curtis Sittenfeld’s much-anticipated novel, Rodham. 

I read Rodham a while ago now but I put off writing about it. I was waiting. Waiting for what exactly? Well, waiting to see if they do what Trump kept insisting they do, back then, when the world seemed what we nostalgically think of as normal. Lock. Her. Up. Since then, there’s been Epstein, hoist by his own orange prison sheets, and now Ghislaine, finally found tucked away in what seems, compared with New Zealand prices, a cheap little house in the country. Given that Ghislaine’s only chance of stopping them throwing away the key is to spill every bean, what I’m waiting for is for 20 policemen to kick in the Clintons’ door early one summer morning. Oh, and simultaneously, the front door of Buckingham Palace; but that’s another story. Bizarrely, an almost imaginable one. The past is indeed another country, and the super-rich and powerful, they’re something else again.

So, which is the word everybody starts a sentence with these days, the book. You set yourself a tricky task when you take a real person and fictionalise their life, especially when they’re still alive. Curtis Sittenfeld managed it with extraordinary aplomb when she took Laura Bush, or someone just like her, and created a fully rounded character in her 2012 novel, American Wife. That book remains in my top 10-ish ever reads. Its greatest success was that it made me feel not only that I knew Laura Bush, but that I both liked and empathised with her. Forever, she’s more than just a pastel suit with tidy hair and a prim smile standing beside a dork. And now, being a self-confessed fan of the wives of (some) presidents, Sittenfeld has taken on Hillary. I couldn’t wait. I guess, like looking forward too much to the school dance, I was always going to be disappointed.

Curtis Sittenfeld and her novel Rodham (Images: Supplied)

For a start, I feel we know the Clintons much better than the Bushes. No you don’t, says Sittenfeld, and sets out to imagine what could’ve happened if the first time Hillary found that the dog couldn’t be kept on the porch, she’d told him to bugger off. Goodbye, good luck, God bless. Their early relationship is probably realistically described – the brainy rather serious girl, the charismatic boy who she can’t imagine being interested in her. She notes that he’s already practising running for office, practising winning people over. At that stage, opines Sittenfeld, Hillary, ambitious, talented, is just at the beginning of her own stellar career: so let’s change the plot. He becomes a tech billionaire, marries, twice. She doesn’t marry; becomes a public servant. They get together again – well not really – when they contest the Democratic nomination. In spite of him being far more charismatic, she wins it. So, he doesn’t. There’d be no point to the novel if she didn’t.

Sittenfeld is playful – of course she is. Genuine timelines are manipulated. Real people turn up and do unconscionable things, leaving the reader wondering vaguely about their right to sue. The novel grips, though slows down a bit when Hillary has to get through the more boring parts of her life. Some of those of us who had been won over by that charm sort of missed Bill – though to be honest, some of us had also seen him on that recent documentary about her, when both she and he are filmed in front of enviable bookcases in their lovely home. She’s looking pretty good; he’s got scrawny around the neck, narrow round the shoulders, wears home-knitted jumpers and his nose looks like he drinks too much. Oh god, time and its bloody winged chariots.

The Clintons in 1969 (Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis Historical, via Getty Images)

It’s taken me quite a lot of puzzling to decide why this very personable, readable book doesn’t entirely work for me. It’s mostly to do with characterisation: of course we don’t really know Hillary already, but we do “know” her, not only as president’s wife, a senior politician and also a presidential candidate who won the popular vote but lost the election. We also know that so many people are over male, stale, pale candidates; we know how many women have had to put up with bullshit; we know about that glass ceiling. This novel needs to give us a fresh insight.

Those who are real people have been fictionalised and it’s the novelist’s job to make us believe in them. We already know Hillary has been treated appallingly, having to put up with endless fake news stories, having to concede an election she’d actually won, having to walk across the lawn of the White House with her husband and her daughter, in her role of Supernanny, tightly holding the hands of her parents. We’ve already seen drama happening to Hillary in the real, so it’s somehow unnecessary – albeit satisfying – to reimagine it.

The good wife and her husband, heading to a press conference on the day the president was impeached, 1998 (Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty)

So we see the capable, successful woman, but we don’t really see the person. If I think back to a prevailing image of Hillary in this book, it’s her having a cup of tea in her kitchen, alone. And I’m not sure we see that monstrous multi-faceted beast which is America either. And one of the main things about Americans is that they’re … Americans. Explain them to me; please.

Because this is fiction, Sittenfeld has the opportunity to change facts, which she clearly enjoys doing. This must be fun for the writer, but exasperatingly, the book is more about what happens if a handful of people go in different directions than about society itself. Bernie Sanders and all he stood for, that bizarre mover of millions of young, that pusher towards socialism, isn’t even a bit part, so neither is the movement. She has most fun with Trump but even here I’m going to moan that Trump is the easiest person in the world to parody, and also the easiest person to portray as shallow. Spoiler alert – he’s not a force for the Republicans in this novel, he’s on another side, perfectly believably given he has scant philosophical gravitas. So while she nails him, while she uses him cleverly, it’s not subtly.

Warning: there is a bit in Rodham where Bill plays the sax naked (Photo: Lee Corkran/Sygma via Getty)

Particularly because the reader knows something about 2020 that even Sittenfeld can’t have foreseen, the thought of Hillary at the helm rather than the moron who actually is, is deeply, sadly, satisfying. The Hillary in this novel, and probably the real Hillary now living in a very nice house with comfy sofas and lots of books and Bill, albeit feeling just a hint of trepidation about what Ghislaine has on him, would doubtlessly be damn glad she hasn’t had to force “freedom-loving” Americans to wear masks and avoid large church gatherings. Actually, quite apart from how the real Hillary feels now, I’d have liked a stronger sense of how the fictionalised one would be coping. Not tweeting, not playing golf or watching Fox News – but what would she have been doing?

Lots of people have adored this book, and if I hadn’t had to give it the thought required to review it, I might’ve too. But not like I did American Wife: that charmer of a book somehow felt so much more like – a novel.

Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld (Doubleday, $37), is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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