Paperback review by Rebecca Foster
Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth novel, a work of alternative history narrated entirely by Hillary Rodham and covering the years between 1970 and the recent past, is perfect summer binge reading. Sittenfeld is one of my favourite authors and I’ve read everything she’s published, so I was predisposed to like Rodham (whereas you will probably want to avoid this book if the idea of spending hours in Hillary’s head – hearing about everything from how Bill Clinton makes her feel in bed to her pre-debate nervous diarrhoea – causes you to recoil, or if you prefer “What if?” questions to be answered in one sentence rather than 400 pages) and jumped at the chance to read it last year for the blog tour.
Sittenfeld has a preternatural ability to get inside other minds and experiences, channelling a first-person voice with intense detail and intimacy; it’s almost like she’s a medium instead of a novelist. As in “The Nominee” (a short story that appeared in the UK edition of her collection You Think It, I’ll Say It), the narration here is perfectly authentic based on what I’ve read of HRC’s memoirs. I was fully engaged in the blend of historical and fictional material and read Rodham in great big chunks of 50+ pages at a time.
The speculative material begins in 1974 when evidence of Bill Clinton’s chronic infidelity and sex addiction comes to light. He warns Hillary that he’ll never get over his issues and will only hold her back in the future, so she’s better off without him. She takes him at his word and leaves Arkansas a single woman. I’m going to leave it there for plot summary (but see my full blog review if you want a spoiler-y discussion) and just add that the made-up characters are as convincing as the real-life ones, and there are a few relationships I found particularly touching. To my relief, there’s a satisfying ending and a couple of central figures get a pleasing comeuppance. I was left wondering what happened next, even if it would require another 400 pages.
Ultimately, Rodham doesn’t work quite as well as American Wife because we already know so much about Hillary from her three memoirs and from her being in the public eye since 1992. Whereas Laura Bush was something of a mystery, and American Wife introduced a comfortable cushion of fiction, Rodham is perhaps a little too in-your-face with its contemporary history and its message. But it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.
Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer who writes for the TLS and Wasafiri and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham (Black Swan, 2021). 978-0552776608,448pp., paperback.