Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfield

Laura McDonagh

Too elitist, too close to Wall Street, too much of a feminist for some Americans’ tastes and not enough for others. Except ‘feminist’ might be the wrong descriptor altogether – perhaps we all need to be honest with ourselves and consider that the real issue might actually rest with her gender – for right-wing conservatives and woke liberals alike. How do you solve a problem like Hillary? 

The answer, Curtis Sittenfeld’s seems to suggest, is to write Rodham, a fictionalised account of what might have happened if Hillary had never married Bill. Of course, there’s plenty of overlap with real, known events, recounted in meticulous and satisfying detail. We’re schooled in Hillary’s controversial graduation speech from Wellesey aged 21 and her first meeting with Bill in the Yale law library (“I noticed you looking at me. Is there something you need?” she asks him, straight-faced) – as well as plenty of, ahem, writerly imagination when it comes to the details of the couple’s early sex life. 

It’s only after Hillary has introduced Bill to her parents, graduated, moved to Arkansas to support Bill in his bid to become Governor and suppressed her own ambitions in order to appear more palatable to Southern voters that the critical moment arrives. One of Bill’s staffers – a married mother of two in her early 30s – approaches Hillary in a carpark to tell her that her would-be husband “forced himself” on her. The accusation sets off a butterfly effect, and sees Hillary’s path deviate from the role of demure, politically-savvy wife to become a committed law professor at Northwestern, then Governor of Illinois followed by presidential candidate. 

On first appraisal, the premise seems ludicrous, impossible to get off the ground. Can you imagine the conversation between Sittenfeld and her publisher? “I want to write a book that makes Hillary Rodham Clinton – yes, doughy, unlikeable Hillary – into the hero. More than that, it’s going to make her fascinating. Even the bits where she’s talking about her leg hair.” I mean, I know everything Sittenfeld writes turns to gold, but really? 

Some readers have criticised the lengthy biographical preamble, but as a reader who was only aware of the highlights reel of her life to date, it succeeded in making Hillary – this Hillary, the Sittenfeld version who didn’t do a Tammy Wynette – real and credible. And as she faces affront after affront, makes the significant personal sacrifices and her physical appearance is scrutinised, we start to feel for her, root for her. We think we know that women in the public eye are measured against impossible standards – duh! – but Rodham serves as an effective reminder nevertheless.

For me, I found the process of living inside Hillary’s head brought my own internalised misogyny – believe me, it’s there, even as part of the generation who swoons over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s slogans of empowerment on her Instagram account – into sharp, uncomfortable focus. Hillary Rodham belongs to a different era of feminism – one that feels lumbering and desperately unhip to readers who weren’t reared in 1950s white-picket suburbs – but here’s the thing: she wants to be president for the simple, refreshing reason that she thinks she’ll be good at it. “The vast majority of men run for election because they decide to want to, and the vast majority of women run only when someone else suggests it.” Bitsy Sedgemen Corker, a major campaign donor, reminds her before she stands for election. And in Sittenfeld’s fictionalised world, being qualified for the job – spoiler alert – ultimately proves to be enough. 

The other major triumph of Rodham is its subtle stripping bare of average white men, especially Bill, who comes off as a complete ass – charming but shallow with some truly toe-curlingly awful lines about his political “calling”. Predictably enough, after splitting with Hillary he marries a pliable Southern belle who, when more accusations of sexual impropriety emerge, crumbles under the spotlight. After their divorce, he reinvents himself as a tech billionaire, vegan and regular at Silicon Valley “cuddle puddles”, calling into question how much of ‘real’ Bill’s political and social survival was down to Hillary’s smarts (err, most of it?) There’s also a pitch-perfect cameo appearance from Donald Trump, who endorses “Hardball Hillary” and is equal parts laughable and monstrous. Really, Sittenfeld’s publisher had no grounds to challenge her in that “I’ve got a great idea!” conversation I like to imagine. Yes, it’s a bizarre alternative reality, but no more bizarre than the one in which we find ourselves. In part 1 of the book Hillary muses on her parents: “In my youth, I had respected my father’s intelligence, not recognising how much sharper my mother’s was because hers was concealed by being pleasant and female.” By the end, she feels the absence of her mother keenly as she reaches her political zenith: “Oh, Dorothy Rodham. Oh, Mom. How I wish you could be here.” But, always mindful of her duty, her wider significance and example rather than her ego, her thoughts are diverted in typical Hillary fashion: “Now other women know they, too, can make it, and not because I or anyone else tells them. They know because they’ve seen it happen.” Oh, what might have been.

Laura McDonagh is a writer living near York. She’s interested in what we mean by ‘home’, social class and the experience of the Irish in Britain. She was a member of the inaugural 2018 Rural Writing Institute and Penguin’s WriteNow programme 2020. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @hey_laura_mc.