BOOK REVIEW: Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
When fantasy and reality blur
Loved or reviled, four years after the 2016 US general election, Hillary Clinton (née Rodham) remains a figure around whom so many contradictions and divisions coalesce.
Rodham (Doubleday) is a novel about Hillary rooted in plausibility, a fictionalised, parallel universe version that does not involve ludicrous conspiracies or fringe lunacies. (Yes, some believe she’s a devil worshipper and runs a paedophile network.)
But Rodham isn’t entirely fantasy. Curtis Sittenfeld has dipped liberally into Clinton’s memoir Living History, and incorporated well-or lesser-known incidents, such as Hillary veering off-script at her college graduation speech to rebut the previous speaker, a senator whom she believed had patronised her fellow women students. This effrontery earned front-page coverage in The Boston Globe of June 1 1969, and the book’s cover is the image carried in the paper — a sepia-filtered photograph of a young, contemplative Rodham — with the provocative question "What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?"
After building a picture of an energetic, practical, and seriously smart woman working in law and academia, and then an experienced US senator, Sittenfeld envisages her running for president multiple times. Rodham picks up the pace in her campaigning years, and starts to bite — hard. The novel is so absorbingly authentic that it requires regular reminders to self to re-root the narrative in imagination. Partly, this is attributable to the stream of real US politicians written into the story; it’s also a currency of wishful thinking: having seen the years since Donald Trump’s victory accumulate into a cesspool of egomania, mismanagement and venality, it’s tempting to drift into an alternative reality.
And, yes, the author can’t resist parodying Trump. He and Bill Clinton have a friendly interaction: "When are we playing golf? You come to my club […] everyone who plays there says it’s the nicest club they’ve ever seen." Later, Hillary manipulates his narcissism, but then worries about the morality of the move. "I don’t think anyone who’s lost their moral compass wonders if they’ve lost their moral compass," her campaign manager assures her. And, near the end there’s a subtle twist on the 2.9-million votes by which she beat Trump in the popular vote in 2016. (No further spoilers.)
There are also some shocking passages which echo the actual president Clinton. In the novel Bill is reimagined as a political rival rather than Hillary’s husband, and is portrayed as a debauched Lothario who is even accused of rape.
Her male rivals are easily forgiven this sordidness, but double standards apply to Hillary, who is pilloried by the media, and chanting crowds, for nonexistent indiscretions. Brutally frank, a consultant explains the essence of her disadvantage: "I have a diagnosis. You’re female."
Indeed, Rodham is a scathing portrayal of sexism in US society. Female readers will identify with the way even shining-light women’s lives are not measured fairly, the obstacles to achievement stack higher than those in men’s paths, and enormous gender prejudice still exists even in leading, apparently enlightened cultures and countries.
Another stark reminder woven into the story is the 1991 nomination hearings of Supreme Court judge candidate Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill’s testimony was damning, but it was she who was treated disgustingly during the senate process in a further illustration of how worthy women are slapped down by men.
This surreal blurring of fact and fiction makes Rodham engrossing. Written in the first person, Hillary as narrator means that readers are in her mind, thus subject to her interpretations, judgements, internal musings and desires. This all-knowing vantage is vaguely unsettling, and sometimes an unseemly intrusion. That’s one of Sittenfeld’s points: as a real person, Hillary is not immune to the routinely cruel abnormalities in US politics — and she is affected by life’s little normalities too.
Shrouded in the author’s clever dramatic irony is the fact that Hillary the candidate was often unfairly seen as dissembling, deceitful and phony, whereas as narrator, there’s no difference between what she says and what she thinks. Sittenfeld makes a cutting point: our biases can doom our political choices, with horrible consequences. The US’s descent since 2016 is also a tale of moral decay.
In clinging to hope, Rodham addresses challenging themes and complex issues: society’s relationship to truth; the gender glass ceiling; the co-mingling of racial and gender discrimination. And the power dynamic skews against women, the nature of which puts the onus firmly upon women to understand men. This socialisation may also explain why women are more empathetic, intuitive and — as portrayed in this imaginative novel — exceedingly more "woke".
In that sense, Rodham may be targeting Hillary fans and women readers for sales, but the message is aimed at men.
Finally, the book is about possibilities. Dare we hope for a Michelle or Kamala in 2024?
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