I have been following the careers of the Clintons since the mid 1990s (see my blogs on What Happened, Hard Choices and Reading Politics), so when I heard about the new novel Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, I couldn’t resist. The subtitle says it all: ‘What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill’?
This is such a clever book. It is one of the best depictions of what it feels like to fall in love I have read for a long time and and it is fascinating being a fly on the wall as Hillary falls in love with Bill at Yale Law School in 1970. Long since tired of the men she was attracted to seeing her only as a friend due to her intelligence and forthrightness, Hillary finds it hard to believe that Bill is demonstrating a romantic interest in her. She is cautious at first but is soon so swept up that she ignores the warning signs from some of her closest friends, who question whether he is really the right choice for her. In the summer of 1971 Bill seemingly puts Hillary first to come and spend the summer with her in San Francisco, hoping to persuade her to move to Arkansas with him so he can run for office. But it is here that Hillary first confronts a sign she can’t ignore, when she catches Bill being unfaithful to her with her boss’ daughter. Fatefully, she decides to forgive him and to give him another chance.
Back in New Haven, Hillary packs up her life and gets ready to drive south. Once she arrives she settles into a life with Bill that will lead to marriage and children, ignoring another warning from her friend Gwen about Bill’s roaming eye. She then ignores a woman who approaches her in a parking lot to tell her that Bill has sexually assaulted her, a decision she will have to confront decades later. She finally comes to her senses when she confronts him about the allegation. He denies it, but doesn’t deny that he has been sleeping with other women, and when Bill himself then warns her against marrying him, Hillary decides enough is enough.
The rest of the book follows her life and her career, which goes from strength to strength, whilst she watches Bill’s life from the sidelines, including his failed Presidential bid in 1992, which falls apart when allegations of adultery come out and his wife fails to give the performance that is needed (that Hillary did herself so well in the real world). The parallels to Hillary Clinton’s real life relationships with friends that went sour due to policy differences, alongside the scandals of financial fraud and suicide, are so cleverly woven into this alternate reality of her life. Sittenfeld asks hard questions of Hillary and why she did nothing about Bill’s behaviour when she could and should have. It also shows Hillary’s genius in playing off Bill and Trump against each other, so that she can get to where she, and the country, needs her to be.
This is a clever, thought provoking, bittersweet novel, and one that anyone who has followed American politics for the last 20-30 years will very much enjoy reading.