The resell Rodham, the fascinating and sometimes icky new novel Prep author Curtis Sittenfeld, is that it gives us a window into an alternate reality in which Hillary Rodham never married Bill Clinton. What that means in practice is that Rodham imagines a Hillary who can give free rein to her ferocious ambition.
Ambition is more than anything the driving force of Rodham. This novel is not particularly interested in criticizing or even scrutinizing Hillary’s politics. Nor is it interested in sanctifying his central figure: While Rodham sometimes gesturing as an escapist fantasy for liberals still mourning Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, it also understands Hillary as a person capable of monumental failures. (Admittedly, Sittenfeld’s Hillary Rodham has significantly fewer failure rates than the real Hillary Clinton seems to have.)
What usually Rodham is interested in researching what female ambition looks like when it is separate from a man. The results are uneven. But when Rodham works, it is very convincing.
Rodham treats Bill and Hillary’s courtship with uneasy intimacy
Rodham has two halves, and the first – in which Bill and Hillary cutely come together at Yale Law – is the weakest. Here, the book never tries to be surprising, as it covers the part of the story that fits our own world, and so all its energy comes from the close and eerie intensity with which it covers Bill and Hillary’s budding romance.
Their connection in Sittenfeld’s stories is both intellectual and sexual. They are each the smartest person the other person has ever met, and they love just talking to each other. And Hillary, who has found that many smart guys like to talk to her but doesn’t consider her material to her girlfriend, is overwhelmed to discover that Bill is genuinely attracted to her, not in spite of her brain, but because of it .
The sex scenes that follow are genuinely shocking. I never thought I would be able to cringe at the thought of Bill Clinton having sex in this, our post-Starr reporting world. Then I read Sittenfeld’s Bill, telling Hillary, “You have great tits. And your small waist, and your nice soft buttocks, and your delicious honey jar – “
Reader, I blanched.
Despite all of this allegedly great sex and meeting mind, Bill, as he should, disappoints. He cheats; Hillary forgives him. He asks her to move to Arkansas with him after his law studies, putting her career on hold so he can start his own political career. And Hillary agrees, as she did in real life.
Her friends disapprove and tell her that with her brains and references she can go anywhere and do anything. Hillary decides that a satisfying relationship is worth the sacrifice.
And then a woman approaches Hillary in a parking lot and tells Hillary that Bill has forced herself on her. The woman’s name is not Juanita Broaddrick, but the story she tells is similar.
Hillary is ripped. She doesn’t imagine Bill could have done something so horrible. She also thinks it’s possible he did.
“The margin between staying and leaving was so thin,” she tells us; “Really, it could have gone either way.”
Rodham is at its best when it allows Hillary to aim wildly and unscrupulously
It is after Hillary leaves Bill and her political career begins Rodham is really starting to get off the ground. Sittenfeld is free to find out, and the reality she’s building is wonderfully dishy.
In the Rodham Universe, Hillary launches her political career by acting for the Senate in 1992 against Carol Moseley Braun. It would be historical, she muses, that Braun is elected and becomes the first black senator, and Braun is certainly a more exciting and charismatic candidate than Hillary is – but, Hillary concludes, Braun is running a messy campaign and is unlikely to win, so Hillary may as well go for it. Significantly, Braun won those elections in real life and served in the Senate until 1999. RodhamHillary builds her career on an act of casual racism she never has to pay for.
In fact freed from the Clinton baggage, Hillary Rodham’s entry into politics is scandal-free. In the alternative history of Rodhamshe’s never a first lady, and Bill Clinton is never president (his 1992 run is unsuccessful), so she never gives her infamous “super-predator” speech. She does not have to assist her husband if she is charged with infidelity, sexual harassment or sexual assault. The Iraq war never takes place, so Hillary never votes in his favor.
Deprived of her real counterpart’s chances of making mistakes, Sittenfeld’s Hillary Rodham gets so flawless it gets boring. Newspapers describe her as a ‘democratic tough guy with a flat vowel’ and profile her under the headings ‘Proudly boring, daringly tough: Hillary Rodham likes to be uncool’.
But that unchastity in Sittenfeld’s hands becomes bizarre compelling. Her prose mimics Hillary Clinton’s style of public speaking with uncanny accuracy: all that nerdy restraint, the slight stiffness that an intelligent woman suggests who doesn’t really like public speaking and has to weigh every word before delivering it .
RodhamHillary edits loose lyrics for her brothers to place the positive after the negative so she sounds more optimistic. She spends every night in a nylon bathrobe drinking chamomile tea and outlining her to-do list for the next day, in an arrangement she calls her ‘nest’. She is a woman who enjoys order and routine, who lives her life in a state of hyper control at all times.
She would also like to be president, and she thinks she has a good chance of doing so. Why not? Hillary knows she doesn’t have the charisma of a natural campaigner like Bill, but she also knows that she’s just as smart and much more capable than him. And she wants to use her cleverness for what she considers the highest possible goal. She wants to gain power. In 1997, she devises a path to the presidency that she estimates will have her in the Oval Office by 2017.
But there is a ripple. Bill in this universe never became president. He ran in 1992, but passed out after being charged with infidelity, and he and his true Southern non-Hillary wife failed a 60 minutes interview in response. Bill licks his wounds and moves to Silicon Valley, where he becomes a tech billionaire and a celebrity, working his way through ecstasy orgies. And in 2016 he decides that he wants to take politics again. He is running for the Democratic nomination against Hillary.
In this funhouse mirror version of the 2016 election, Bill becomes an amalgamation of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, a dark horse who disrupts a pre-election that would be a fixture, a celebrity contender with an outsider and an avid fanatic of tech-loving young men. (Bernie herself does not appear in Rodham, which doesn’t seem interested in criticizing Hillary from the left. Trump does.) Bill’s charisma and tech world make him political teflon, unharmed by the sexual misconduct allegations flying around him, while Hillary is accused of sexual harassment for having a junior employee shave her legs.
As the election progresses, Bill’s avid supporters of young men are overwhelmed by a deep, rootless hatred of Hillary. At his meetings they begin to sing, “Shut up!” And Bill, who likes a crowd, is happy to respond.
“He smiled,” notes Hillary, as the song builds up around Bill, “as a successful man would smile if an attractive woman told him he was the most handsome man in the world. He wasn’t sure it was true. He knew this probably wasn’t the case. But still it was very nice to hear. ‘
Ironically, this portrait of Bill Clinton in this book, apparently about Hillary Rodham, reads the most indelible: Clinton as a charismatic predator, a clumsy gladiator willing to throw an old flame under the bus for public approval. It feels dark and accurate.
Hillary will not remain silent. She eventually maneuvers, invents and explodes against her critics in a cathartic expression of anger RodhamSittenfeld’s purest expression of escapist fantasy: don’t you want to ask us that she actually said this? Don’t you think things would have been different if she had?
But this escapist fantasy is not convincing either Rodham. There are certainly plenty of counterfacts that could have changed the results of the 2016 elections: What if James Comey hadn’t reopened the FBI investigation in her emails? What if the Clinton campaign had worked harder in Wisconsin? What if the 80,000 like voters who cost Clinton the Electoral College were slightly different geographically?
But “What if Hillary got really mad and finally told the audience what for?” as one of them is inconclusive.
In fact, it doesn’t seem likely to me that the American voters who chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton would be influenced by a viscerally angry Hillary. I don’t think things would have been different had Hillary finally torn down her walls and expressed her opinion clearly.
That is ultimately the tragedy of Hillary Clinton, and of Rodham: Not that she married a man who is both more charming and less capable than her, but that the public punished her for expressing her opinion, and then punished her for not being able to make an authentic connection with us. It is an inescapable trap. There was no way out. And it’s cheap to pretend otherwise.