‘Rodham’ is impassive and unremarkable. It’s still really fun to read.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 7:40pm

NOSELL

Random House

In the imaginary world of “Rodham,” Hillary Rodham writes of her relationship with Bill Clinton: “The margin between staying and leaving was so thin; really, it could have gone either way.” Although the novel is unquestionably fiction, behind this invented statement there is truth: Bill Clinton famously proposed three times to Rodham, who, uncertain about their relationship, declined the first two. On the third proposal, she acquiesced, and they were wed in 1975.

In Curtis Sittenfeld’s version of the story, things go the other way. In 1975, Hillary Rodham leaves Bill after his streak of infidelity and moves to Chicago to teach law.

This historical re-writing is the greatest selling point for “Rodham.” It’s a bold choice on Sittenfeld’s part, who was previously celebrated for her New Yorker short fiction and romance novels, not simply narrating from the perspective of political celebrity — Hillary Clinton — but also reimagining that celebrity’s life. Simultaneously, this ingenuity and slight awkwardness is what makes the novel so appealing to both Clinton’s political followers and more generic Democrats still aching from Clinton’s 2016 loss. It offers the potential to revel in a world — for 400 pages — where Clinton (or, Rodham?) was not marred by the sexual scandals of her husband, was not forced to change her last name for his political career and was not jostled into dresses as first lady.

From the onset, Sittenfeld finds Rodham’s voice with ease. It is rigid, straightforward and pragmatic, agreeing with the political accent and message heard by millions of Americans from debate stages and biographies. It is clear that Sittenfeld has done her research, and even when the story turns entirely unfamiliar (Rodham’s thoughts towards Donald Trump, say, or even those during sex with Bill Clinton), she adheres to Rodham's voice in such a way that makes it almost difficult to separate the person crafted in “Rodham” from the real former Secretary of State.

Unfortunately, when this voice is utilized in the remainder of the novel, the potential strength that “Rodham” suggests in its intrepid premise is lost. Particularly in contrast with “You Think It, I’ll Say It,” Sittenfeld’s collection of short fiction that felt near-overwhelming with its brisk and thoughtful prose, the writing in large margins of “Rodham” feels disappointingly similar to your grandmother’s 99 cent paperback thriller. Sometimes, this comes in the form of tiring lines — "the speakers swelled with an upbeat pop song by a young female artist." Other times, particularly near the end of the novel, feel as if Sittenfeld is sick of sitting at her desk and has crammed six details into a sentence for the sake of, well, details.

The problem with this lackluster, uninspired writing is that it detracts from the areas in which “Rodham” has the potential to make excellent points. The book’s most powerful section is its first quarter, in which Rodham meets, falls in love with and eventually leaves Bill Clinton. “Falling in love was shocking, shocking, utterly shocking,” Sittenfeld writes. As the two move in together, Sittenfeld captures the moral complexity and distress that Bill’s infidelity invokes on Rodham. Like the rest of the novel, the chapters are intriguing and original. They also offer more than just an amusing tale about Rodham: They invoke complex questions on love and relationships without sacrificing writing or soapboxing about Rodham’s choices.

In the second part of the book, long after her relationship with Bill Clinton has ended, Rodham successfully enters the political arena by way of a Senate run. Here, Rodham transforms even more into the Hillary readers already know well — fiercely moderate and practical in every decision. But what is the result of this imagining of her character? What does it mean to adapt a real, divisive, living stranger into a fictional landscape?

Certainly, Sittenfeld walks a fine line in “Rodham.” While wrong to fictitiously exonerate Clinton to readers through fantasized inner dialogues, it is perhaps equally wrong to invent immoral scenarios for her. After all, while Clinton has opened her life to the public, she has never made it appropriate to rewrite the entirety of her life story. Doing so runs the risk of drastically altering the way readers view Clinton by way of fiction. This, done in a method that purposefully takes Clinton's perspective, can feel malicious. 

This contestation leaves the novel in a tedious place. It feels, frankly, that Sittenfeld has a responsibility to portray Clinton in a nuanced, appropriate way, for risk of misconstruing the person behind the politics that impact real, everyday lives. From this perspective, and coupled with its uninspired writing, “Rodham” appears abysmally disappointing (and probably a bad idea from the get-go).

From a more lax perspective, however, though the onset of the story feels this way, it soon becomes clear that Sittenfeld is not here to educate or convince, but to entertain. “Rodham” isn’t built solely as a rally cry for pantsuit nation or to understand Rodham’s political calculations. It is Sittenfeld’s creativity running wild, and exists as a fascinating, albeit imagined, glance at one perspective toward the role of gender in politics. Once this is realized — once one can adapt to Sittenfeld’s writing that is notably less careful and profound than her previous work — “Rodham” can take its shape as a lighthearted political thriller that has its ups and downs, readers waiting for results like election day. In a way that may be refreshing to some, “Rodham” doesn’t take itself too seriously. Readers, opening a gutsy love story and near-political fanfiction, shouldn’t either.