In 1971, Hillary Rodham is a young woman full of promise. In the real world, Hillary followed Bill back to Arkansas, and he proposed several times. Although she turned him down more than once, she eventually accepted and became Hillary Clinton. But in Curtis Sittenfeld's novel, Hillary follows a different path.
Rodham is a nauseating, moving, morally suggestive, technically brilliant book that made me think more than any other in recent memory about the aims and limits of fiction ... Rodham feels more invasive than even the most intricate Reddit fantasies about Clinton — she runs a child sex ring; she is a literal witch — because of its plausibility: the attentive, almost obsessive way it catches her voice and her fears ... If this impersonation feels uncanny, even parasitic, it is ... At the same time, it feels less exploitative than some of the ostensible nonfiction written about Clinton. She has been so fictionalized, warped and weaponized by pundits and journalists to fit their chosen narratives that straightforward fiction is almost reassuring in its aims ... There's a seaminess in reading it, too, in satisfying some impulse of prurience or fantasy or grief ... Since 2016, a lot of people have taken a grim pleasure in announcing they always knew Clinton would lose. That America is too sexist, too racist, too rotten at the core for it to have gone any other way. There's relief in thinking like that, in shutting the door, in closing the case. By fanning out alternate narratives, this novel strips readers of the comfortable and cynical knowingness of it had to be like this — you would have had to be stupid to think it wouldn't be like this. Instead, it asks us to imagine a different world. She could have been different; we could have been different; everything could have been different. And from there, what a short — excruciating, hopeful — leap it is to: Everything could be different.
What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill? No spoilers, but Sittenfeld’s answer is likely to alternately elate and enrage readers of all political affiliations. She spins a wild political tale that involves a certain lascivious New York City billionaire, a bizarre leg-shaving scandal and Silicon Valley orgies ... gleefully abandons biographical analysis for thought experimentation ... Certain early passages read like cringe-inducing fan fiction: it would be one thing to encounter veiled approximations of Bill and Hillary getting hot and heavy in law school. It is quite another to read sex scenes that invoke the real names of one of America’s most prominent couples. Sittenfeld even goes so far as to imply that Bill is a sex addict, crumpled under the weight of an unstoppable affliction ... Sittenfeld, an admitted Hillary Clinton fan, reflects on real-life Hillary’s outsize role in Bill’s capturing the presidency through compelling vignettes ... yet even as Sittenfeld grants Hillary the ability to finally do and say whatever she pleases, Rodham doesn’t always satisfy. For one, Sittenfeld never pinpoints a clear motivation for her hero’s desire to enter politics. Real-life Hillary notoriously switched her campaign slogans with abandon, which some took as proof that she could not articulate her reasons for running. Where supporters saw a woman responding to the call to service, critics accused her of being power hungry. Sittenfeld, despite the freedom of her format, lands on neither theory — nor does she offer a convincing alternative ... If her aim was to offer new insight into Hillary’s mind, she doesn’t succeed. But who cares? Even if the character isn’t compelling, her mission to break the glass ceiling is. For a certain reader, the chance to dwell in an alternate reality will be enough. For others, there’s always the orgies.
In these Dark Ages of the Reign of Trump, Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham descends like an avenging angel ... This isn't just fiction as fantasy; it's fiction as therapy for that majority of Americans who voted for Clinton in 2016 and are now sick and unemployed under the current calamitous administration ... Rodham, though, is a high-profile novel - not a parody or a joke book, but a serious work of literary fiction - designed to rally the political spirits of liberal readers ... [The] erotic trysts might seem over the top, but they're all part of the novel's corrective impulse, its determination to rebalance the way men and women exist in our political imagination. After all, if Bill can carry on and Donald Trump can grab women, why can't a female politician have a healthy sex life? ... Yes, this is an implicitly polemical novel. It's devoted to exonerating a politician who has been maligned for decades. But that motive doesn't crimp the book's energy or its suspense because there are other larger themes at work besides Hillary's basic goodness. While telling a compelling story, Rodham provides an insightful analysis of the function of sexism in our political discourse ... And as an extra bonus, Rodham captures Trump better than any other novel has so far. Sittenfeld showcases the real estate developer in all his bombastic narcissism and self-delusion. It's an astounding, slaying parody, while also, mercifully, offering us a future that avoids today's ever-expanding disaster ... The novel's exculpatory impulse exacts a cost, though. As a study of sexism and American politics, Rodham is rich. But as a character study, it knows everything. That leaves little distance between the narrator and her words in which we can sense the mysteries of an actual mind. In that sense, Rodham mimics Hillary's own careful presentation of herself. Perhaps what I'm tempted to call a flaw is merely another element of the novel's verisimilitude.