After saying no to Bill Clinton the first two times he asked her to marry him, Hillary Rodham eventually said yes. In her memoirs, she describes this as the “most consequential decision of my life”. In Rodham, novelist Curtis Sittenfeld poses the question: what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill? This brilliant premise is explored in a heartening take on politics, power and gender.
Hillary Rodham first meets Bill Clinton while at Yale Law School, two formidable students on the verge of greatness in the eyes of those around them. Bill is an affable Rhodes scholar from Arkansas, Hillary a whip-smart Midwesterner with a cruel father. They quickly fall into a relationship fuelled by intelligence and desire. But Bill cannot remain faithful and Hillary’s girlfriends are wary of him in a way that is deeply recognisable to all women. Inevitably they part ways despite great heartbreak.
Sittenfeld has a history of work in this area: 2008’s American Wife is a fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush. Rodham takes this idea further with help from facts and anecdotes taken from autobiographies and cultural studies texts, combined with a brilliant speculative vision.
We follow Hillary’s work as a lawyer and as she runs for office. There she must navigate entrenched gender discrimination, but at the same time Sittenfeld doesn’t shy away from exploring questions of race, particularly in relation to intersectional feminism.
While many will be drawn to Rodham for the drama – the sex scandals, the betrayals, the quests for power – the novel most succeeds in its quiet moments. Rodham reminds us that public service is not always part of a fight for control; it can be a sacrifice for good alone. Most of all, this novel celebrates female friendship and true companionship. The steady hands that carry us through love and loss, and allow us to be the greatest versions of ourselves.
Rodham is undoubtedly one of the books of the year, arriving with a loud splash. But despite this, it is a very Midwestern tale: unassuming and thoughtful, quietly full of care and heart.
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld