Hillary Rodham Clinton is a Rorschach test for our culture, as she herself has noted. In the 1980s as first lady of Arkansas, she was thought to have weakened Bill Clinton’s campaign as an incumbent by keeping her maiden name, so she took his. When his affair with Monica Lewinsky in the White House was revealed in the 1990s, Hillary’s popularity soared for standing by her man. Twenty years later, she was reviled for the same decision and called an enabler. She earned high approval ratings as a senator and as secretary of state, but her popularity plummeted when she ran for higher office.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel “Rodham” poses the fascinating question: How would we feel about Hillary without Bill? For Sittenfeld, the answer is complicated. Some may dismiss Hillary’s political career as hinging on her husband’s, but as anyone familiar with her record at Wellesley College and Yale Law School knows, she was by all accounts a brilliant, outspoken student – and “Rodham” opens with the graduation speech she gave at Wellesley that propelled her to public notice .
By turns historical fiction, fan fiction, and a novel of manners, Sittenfeld’s portrait imagines how things might have been had Hillary said no to Bill’s proposal of marriage. It’s a peculiar fantasy, but one that will resonate with readers who think Hillary got a raw deal, both in her marriage and in the coverage of her 2016 presidential bid.
The novel’s first section is uneven. Young Hillary’s narration can feel too self-aware; for example, when leaving Bill, she reflects, “The margin between staying and leaving was so thin: really it could have gone either way.” “Rodham” hits its stride when it peels away from Hillary’s youth to envision what her life might have been as a law professor. It’s the single, middle-aged Hillary who is far more appealing, whether she’s sharing a tea party with the daughter of a friend or confidences with the reader in her failed attempt at dating. In an office romance – an emotional affair with an unhappily married man – it’s hard not to root for the two, as they bond over watching Anita Hill’s testimony. Sittenfeld shines at depicting these social interactions, with their inevitable moments of awkwardness, and how nuances of race, class, and gender come into play in relationships as well as in politics.
Hillary runs for president in this alternative universe, too, and once the race for the Democratic nomination started, I couldn’t put the book down. Part of the fun, despite some cringe-worthy moments, is in seeing what problems surface. She still has troubles in her interactions with reporters, but this Hillary makes different, more successful tactical choices. Donald Trump appears, though not in the way you might expect, as does Bill, as a thrice-married technocrat, who Sittenfeld suggests, would have been a better man had he married Hillary.
During the campaign, Sittenfeld gets at the heart of how media coverage of Hillary, tinged by everything from subtle sexism to outright misogyny, made the road to the presidency not just rocky, but riddled with land mines. Those obstacles would have been there no matter who her husband was, or which political rivals she faced.
I won’t give away whether Hillary wins this 2016 race, but in a way it doesn’t matter. There’s no possibility “Rodham” can give readers the satisfaction of a happy ending because whatever fate Hillary-without-Bill finds can only stand in contrast to our current reality. Some voters may not have trusted or "liked" Hillary, but she was nothing if not prepared. When a woman is a policy wonk or adheres to a scripted speech, it can seem less cool or authentic compared with politicians who ad-lib or grandstand, but that kind of preparation can make for awfully good leadership in a crisis.
Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY and a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.