Smart, engaging, and heartbreakingly plausible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Rodham” posits a world in which Hillary Diane Rodham never married William Jefferson Clinton but instead went on to pursue her own political career decades earlier than the onetime presidential candidate did in real life.
This speculative work, Sittenfeld’s sixth novel, takes off on a statement in the former secretary of state’s memoir “What Happened,” in which Clinton recalls that her husband asked her twice to marry him, and that twice she declined before, of course, ultimately accepting. Like Sittenfeld’s 2008 novel, “American Wife,” which was loosely based on former first lady Laura Bush, “Rodham” is told as a first-person reminiscence. But “Rodham,” like its namesake narrator, is the sharper book by far, depicting the realities of American politics as well as an astute portrait of the candidate who, we should remember, did win the popular vote.
From the start, the Hillary whom Sittenfeld envisions has a prescient understanding of her ability to lead as well as its potential costs. Addressing her Wellesley commencement, as the real Clinton did in 1969, she feels “a sense of my own competence blended with the knowledge that I was about to pull off a feat most people thought, correctly or not, they couldn’t” as well as “the loneliness of being good at something.” These combine to give her a taste of what to expect: “My own singular future.”
This Hillary has already received early lessons in the obstacles she will face. At a friend’s 10th birthday party, she recalls, the celebrant’s father told her, “You’re awfully opinionated for a girl.” This incident — also used in Sittenfeld’s 2016 short story about Clinton, “The Nominee” — sets the tone for the protagonist’s interactions with men. Even when she meets Bill, whom she believes to be her soul mate, he not so subtly reinforces the message that she cannot be both a woman and an independent thinker.
Divided roughly into three parts, Sittenfeld’s political fantasy starts with that commencement speech and convincingly reimagines Hillary and Bill’s courtship at Yale Law School through their move to Arkansas. So credible that it’s almost agonizing, this first section gives us the smart but insecure woman swept off her feet by the charismatic womanizer. In stark contrast to her early romantic disappointments, Bill appears to adore her body and her mind equally, promising Hillary everything she ever wanted. Until, that is, he doesn’t.
When Hillary breaks up with Bill, following a series of traumatic revelations, the book shifts into speculative territory — envisaging a career track for Hillary that involves both advocacy work and her own first ventures into the political arena. While these are logical and fully fleshed, playing out the inevitable conflicts between her early idealism and her ambitions and drawing on interviews and Clinton’s own writings, this makes for the driest part of the book. Hillary always was a policy wonk, and Sittenfeld evokes her smart, detailed voice for good and ill.
The action picks up again in 2015, as Hillary launches what in this fictional world is her third campaign for the presidency — and finds herself competing for the Democratic nomination with Bill. In an utterly believable turn, her ex (who has spent the intervening years amassing a fortune in Silicon Valley) has become a populist in the mode of Donald Trump. Although a liberal-centrist in his policies, he’s not averse to playing on the sexism of the crowd. After Bill astutely attacks his opponent for her strengths — particularly her use of “complicated terms” when she’s discussing economics — chants of “Shut her up” become regular campaign features.
Trump himself, still merely a television celebrity in this retelling, figures into the increasingly fraught dynamics. Sittenfeld repurposes the racist comments from Trump’s campaign launch statement, creating a credible alternative role for our 45th president in which he mulls whether to enter the race and opts instead for the role of kingmaker, tweeting about “Hardball Hillary” and “Cheatin’ Bill.” As Hillary considers enlisting the blowhard businessman as a spoiler, Sittenfeld has a campaign official muse in what must be the book’s darkest joke: “I wonder if this is the part in the movie where the scientist spills the teensiest bit of radioactive slime,” she says.
Repulsed by Trump’s “smug, acrid jitteriness,” Hillary is nonetheless willing to consider that risk. A seasoned politician by this point, she is also increasingly circumspect — especially about Bill. “The reason he shouldn’t be president isn’t that he’s vegan,” she says to her campaign crew in a rare moment of candor. “It’s that he’s a sexual predator.” Aware of the import of this revelation, and of possible repercussions — her long silence about a long-ago incident makes her vulnerable to charges of complicity — she previously hadn’t dared voice this thought in public. She barely admits it to herself. It’s the genius of Sittenfeld’s prose that we come to understand this ambivalence, as well as the deep conflicts in this complicated character. In the longing and loneliness, the anger as well as ambition, this Hillary makes “Rodham” a compelling portrait of a future that might have been.
RODHAM: A Novel
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 432 pp., $28
Clea Simon is the author of “An Incantation of Cats.” She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.