From the Jacket
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. I n 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 trade-offs all of us must make in building a life.
RODHAM was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, not because I consider myself a huge Curtis Sittenfeld fan (this is the first I’ve read of hers) but because of its supremely intriguing concept- what if Hilary Rodham never married Bill Clinton? Toying with preexisting stories is something Sittenfeld is familiar with–her 2016 novel ELIGIBLE modernizes PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, whereas 2008’s AMERICAN WIFE offers up a fictionalized portrait of the Bush White House–but where AMERICAN WIFE is simply inspired by real people, RODHAM goes one step further by using real names, places, and events.
“The margin between staying and leaving was so thin; really, it could have gone either way.”
With RODHAM, Sittenfeld envisions a kind of alternate future for Hilary, imagining where she would be had she not became a Clinton. The novel starts as Hilary and Bill meet at law school and follows the beginnings of their relationship while seeming almost like a memoir; it’s very “I did this and then I did this and then I did this” in a way that feels like you have a direct line into Hilary’s thoughts. When Hilary declines Bill’s proposal and the narrative becomes speculative, we begin to see not only how Hilary’s life could have been different, but also Bill’s. We see the things a single Hilary could have been capable of, and also the things a single Bill could never have accomplished on his own. It’s a truly fascinating concept and I really enjoyed uncovering the future that Sittenfeld envisions for Hilary.
“Some people who run for office want to create change, and some want everyone to fall in love with them.”
However, though I had a lot of fun with the idea behind RODHAM, the execution missed the mark for me. The novel, primarily the fictionalized second half, relies too heavily on info-dumping as a way to progress the narrative. While I am grateful Sittenfeld did her research to make the novel as realistic as possible, at times the story gets lost in lengthy explanations of political races and their candidates. Additionally, the second half struggles with time jumps that disrupt the pace while failing to make much sense plot-wise. For me, the novel starts strong with its memoir-like style, but in the speculative second half the narrative goes awry, the plot becomes anti-climactic, and I started to feel bored.
RODHAM turned out to be quite a disappointment for me in the end. Despite the intriguing concept, RODHAM’s meandering plot and heavy reliance on info-dumping ruined my experience with this book. This was my first Sittenfeld novel, but, as many fans say this is not her best effort, I’ll be sure to give her a second chance at some point, either with her much-beloved AMERICAN WIFE or her cult debut PREP!
“Fact-checking Rodham: Curtis Sittenfeld’s alternate history gets analyzed” by Constance Grady and Matthew Yglesias, Vox
“Curtis Sittenfeld Rewrites History” by Sarah Eckel, Publishers Weekly
“What Would America Look Like If Hilary Never Became a Clinton?” by Tyrese L. Coleman, Electric Lit