Rodham: A Novel

Curtis Sittenfeld

Doubleday, £16.99

Review by Andrew Meehan

And now she is in Las Vegas. Hillary Rodham has been shown to the penthouse in Trump Las Vegas hotel, for a meeting she wants no part in. No one offers her anything to drink. Eventually, one of her team requests water and an assistant “reappeared carrying Styrofoam cups, ice free; she brought these out two by two, as unapologetically as if my team were a suburban family who’d locked ourselves out of our house and she was the next-door neighbor letting us wait in her kitchen.”

Rodham is a vast, assured, and shapely novel, and this scene is late in the game. Of all the predicaments we have seen Hillary in, this is a minor one. Even though she has seemed reluctant to be the protagonist in her own story, Rodham now has plans beyond Vegas.

Curtis Sittenfeld first grappled with Hillary Clinton in a short story called The Nominee that featured in her excellent 2018 collection You Think It, I’ll Say It. The Nominee, which was first commissioned by American Esquire, and has the heft of good reportage, is a fascinating account of what happened – and what might have happened. Rodham, too, has some of the best whatif-ery going, the biggest proposition being: what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?

It’s the 1980s and Hillary is a law professor at Northwestern in Illinois. Political ambition is only a background note in her life. She plays Scrabble with her parents at their condominium. She is considering an affair with a colleague. Only later do we sense the tang of a morality tale: Silicon Valley, dark money, orgies, death threats. Hillary is gentle in her ways, and diligent – that seems to be Sittenfeld’s inclination – and a little boring. But that earnestness is endearing and, whatever criticism you can throw at her, Hillary has thought of it first. She is happy to admit: “It’s likely that there was never a time that you were aware that I existed without also being aware that I’m supposedly controversial, untrustworthy, or unlikable. And it’s very normal that if we’re told many times over many years that a person is untrustworthy or unlikable, we’ll believe it.”

You have to assume Sittenfeld relished her subject’s battle with her own self-understanding. In a family group text about their beloved Chicago Cubs, Hillary says that the season is looking promising but she’s trying not to get her hopes up. “Then, because I’d learned from giving speeches that ending with the negative half of a mixed sentiment made the whole thing seem pessimistic, I deleted what I’d written and typed instead, ‘I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but this season does seem promising.’”

Much as she did in her 2008 novel American Wife, Sittenfeld shows a touching sense of patience with her subject. American Wife is a roman à clef in which Laura Bush is reborn as feminist Alice Blackwell. In Rodham, Hillary keeps her name and lives through various alternative lives, none of them as mysterious or convincing as the book’s scenes on the campaign trail. Sittenfeld seems to revel in that quest more than Hillary does.

One day, she is having lunch with a political donor by the name of Bitsy Sedgeman Corker. Corker, who Hillary remembers is wearing a polka dot pantsuit, says that Hillary would make a terrific governor, and that: “the vast majority of men run for election because they decide they want to, and the vast majority of women run only when someone else suggests it.”

In putting herself in charge of Hillary’s destiny, Sittenfeld has the ultimate freedom. Hillary can be entertaining, provocative, doubtful. Eventually her personality fuses with that of the campaign: full of courage and righteous energy but ready at any moment to collapse. But luck doesn’t always follow the intelligent or the energetic, and one of the sad and serious points this book makes is that every time Rodham wins it feels less like a victory than a snub to you know who.

Sittenfeld remains quite content to lean on Bill. After they break up, Hillary admits that: “Because we had talked about everything, everything reminded me of him: Linda Ronstadt’s new album and my roommate’s recipe for savory crêpes and the colleague who told me family law was a second-rate area of study and President Ford’s decision to posthumously restore Robert E. Lee’s citizenship. Even in his absence, Bill remained the most interesting person with whom to discuss any book or breaking news or small moment of absurd behavior on the part of a friend, acquaintance, family member, or stranger.”

Much is made of his charm; too much is made of it. On their first date Bill calls Hillary the smartest person at Yale, as well as an East Coast snob. He wants to be president one day but he wants to kiss her right now. More dates follow, more chances for him to show off about his knowledge of Troilus and Cressida, or ice cream sundaes. Their lovemaking is remembered with “granular precision”, erections appear as regularly as newspapers. There is such a thing as too much Bill Clinton, and this novel has it.

Other than showing him the door, Hillary’s judgement around Bill is unsettlingly poor. There’s something empty to their relationship, or to him, or to her with him. And why go through all those lunches in pantsuits so as to be ambivalent about running for a job you aren’t even sure you want? The answer could lie in a strange and riveting scene where, in order to counter yet another misogynist slur, Hillary’s campaign team stage a date with an eager party donor. It’s all there in that awkward dinner (the eight dollar cabernet, the kiss that isn’t posed for paparazzi, but seems like it is) and the fact that Hillary has chosen to fake a date with someone she actually likes.

As the date winds up and she is heading for her armoured SUV, and her next appointment, Hillary admits: “Tonight isn’t a transaction pretending to be emotional. If anything, it’s something emotional pretending to be transactional.” Transactional is a very Rodham word.

By now Hillary is calling herself “a vessel and a proxy”. She’s doing what it takes to become America’s first female president. And the feeling is that of someone drumming their fingers on the table while waiting for history to turn – too slowly – in their direction. Isn’t that the fate of any politician?

Sittenfeld’s style is perfectly matched to her subject. Her gifts include perfect long-range vision and, much like Hillary’s delightfully named lunch companion, a knack for burying useful information in the reader’s mind. In Rodham, there is always the sense of something impending.

All those meals and meetings with political donors call up a question that might unlock the novel. Aren’t we revealed by the company we keep? Dwelling honourably among the dishonourable offers no real protection from them. Don’t their techniques become yours? The same easy eloquence, the same fraudulence? Sittenfeld’s Hillary is no fraud. But she does seem to live both with and beyond morality, and this makes her the most credible of fictional creations. When Rodham gets going, and she finds full voice, you feel only relief.

Rodham is published in e-book and audio, and available to order in hardback.