Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld – Alternate Deals With The Devil

Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld, is an alternative history, imagining what might have happened if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton after they met as students at Yale.

So I think the idea is that the real Hillary made a kind of pact with the devil in her marriage. Colleagues and mentors thought Hillary had the potential to do great things in her own right, and disapproved when their brilliant protege moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas to help boyfriend Bill Clinton with his campaign to win the state governorship. Hillary already knew that Bill was unfaithful but decided to live with it. Then in 1974, a woman who worked on the Clinton campaign, approached Hillary in a Fayetteville carpark and accused her boyfriend of sexual assault.

The real Hillary continued to live with it, marrying Bill in 1975 and following him all the way to the White House, where she put her undoubted abilities to good use behind the scenes. She also served as Secretary of State for President Obama.

In Rodham, Hillary does not marry Bill. She works as a law professor, before running for the senate, and then for the presidency in 2016. Without giving too much away, we can safely say that Hillary’s alternate course involves compromises and deals with the devil which are on a par with marrying Bill Clinton. This was interesting. The only problem might be that the book failed to follow through with its contradictions as fully as you might expect. Hillary does what she has to do, and is then remarkably free of consequences when the pay-off comes.

The best part of the novel for me was the early section where a young and brilliant Hillary tries to win boyfriends. The book characteristically presents cleverness alongside much more basic elements of human nature. This contradiction is present in Hillary, Bill Clinton, and America itself, which put the first man on the moon, while in some ways remaining a very backward country socially. Humanity is portrayed as a species with high intelligence combined with Stone Age instincts. In the various political campaigns depicted in the book a lot of very clever people do some very shady things. And there is always this dilemma of balancing the two sides of leadership, the technocratic affair of expertise, and the more emotional business of flag waving, schmoozing, giving good jobs to your mates, and shouting.

I don’t think this is a feminist novel, it’s more just a novel. There are some male characters who are awful. The in-your-face dreadfulness of Donald Trump is well portrayed, as is the more insidious darkness of Bill Clinton. And yet there is also a surprising amount of romance novel in the writing style – of both the Black Lace variety, and fake-dating-leading-to-real-dating variety. I couldn’t decide if this was clever irony or a more straight-forward fall into convention. It could have been both of course. Like Hillary herself, Rodham takes itself seriously. There is a list of discussion topics at the end. It is perhaps fitting, given the subject of the book, that the writing is literary at times, rather more populist at others.

Overall this is an interesting read, a thought experiment, where the weakness might be that the straight-forward result does not quite reflect the complex variables that go into it.

As a final note, Rodham also makes me think how ruthless writers can be – up there with politicians. Personally I would be wary of writing a book like this about people who are still living. I wonder how it made the real Hillary feel? But no doubt she has faced worse.

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