Fiction

Book Review: The Problem of Being Female—Rodham: A Novel

Rodham: A Novel
By Curtis Sittenfield
Random House

We think we should all know her by now. After decades in the limelight, Hillary Rodham Clinton remains, for many, an enigma. Now author Curtis Sittenfeld attempts to lift the elusive veil in her very readable novel Rodham.

Admirers, and even haters, of the real Clinton know her backstory all too well, and Sittenfeld retains many of those historical details in her fictional account, such as her speech as the first-ever student speaker at her alma mater, Wellesley College, on May 31, 1969, or that she wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up only to learn that NASA didn’t accept female applicants. But there are also plenty of fictional flourishes, some large, some small. She becomes involved in Harold Washington’s successful run for mayor of Chicago; she is elected as the senator from Illinois, not New York; she lives in Streeterville; she teaches at Northwestern University. Rodham recreates real events too from Bill Clinton’s long keynote address at the 1988 Democratic Convention to the controversial Clarence Thomas hearings.

But the premise of the novel is simple. It asks what would have happened if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton; if she had remained Hillary Rodham, the girl from Park Ridge?

It’s a fun read on many levels, especially when confronted with its many trippy parallel worlds–twists and warps in the universe. For example, the Trumpian mantra “Lock her up” becomes “Shut her up!” for altogether different reasons and under different contexts. The famous 1992 60 Minutes Bill and Hillary interview, where she famously invoked the name of country music star Tammy Wynette (“You know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man…”), takes a very, very different turn.

When Hillary first meets Bill at law school she remarks that, with his full coppery beard and standing at a strapping six foot two, he looks like a “lion.” And when the ambitious Arkansan discusses his political ambitions with her, which go all the way to the White House, and asks her why she doesn’t reach just as far, she gives him a sad, but practical, reply, “Well, there’s being female, for one thing.” Indeed, from the start of the novel, Rodham laments “the loneliness of being good at something” and the curse of being an ambitious woman in a man’s world.

Hillary as the perennial outsider is also part of Sittenfeld’s story. When she agrees to go with Bill back to Arkansas and secures a position teaching criminal law at a local university, she can’t help but notice that the class consists of mostly males. As a female and Yankee to boot she wonders if she seemed to them “as strange as a Martian.” 

Oftentimes this Hillary sounds like the real Hillary. Like the real Hillary, the fictional Hillary is a political junkie, a policy wonk, who loves the details of legislating but, also like the real Hillary, hates the “glad-handing” of the campaign trail and “the suffering of fools.”

And then a big twist occurs, and it involves Donald Trump no less. You have to read the book to find out.

The scandals are here too, although not as many. No Whitewater scandal or Travelgate just something called Razorgate but Sittenfeld also makes reference to the tragic suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster. Because she does not marry Bill, there is no Chelsea. But neither, on the other hand, is there Monica Lewinsky and, hence, less political baggage to carry.

And then there is the persona of Hillary herself. In these pages the fictional Hillary is also considered “unlikable,” and her Midwestern voice “shrill,” “strident,” and “nasal.” As a political candidate, her fictional alter ego veers between pretentious and elitist, while giving off a “serious professor vibe.” The real Hillary is said to inspire intense loyalty among friends and colleagues. She is famous too for supposedly lacking a sense of humor. Sittenfeld has fun with that aspect of her personality.

Sittenfeld plays with history over and over again, which includes at least one delicious example of sweet political revenge. 

For Clinton fans, the poignant and bittersweet ending amounts to little more than wishful thinking. For non-Clinton fans, well, it is unlikely they would be reading this book anyway.

Rodham is not a great work by any means—there is not enough depth to the characterization, it sometimes appears a bit off, and too much of it is an almost rote recounting of the highlights of Clinton’s earlier career and life–but it is an enjoyable read nevertheless and it does raise a lot of intriguing what-would-it-have-been-like questions.

If only…

Rodham: A Novel is available for purchase through most local bookstores, at bookshop.org, and through the publisher.

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