Book review: Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘what if’ novel somehow manages to make the former Presidential hopeful less interesting than she is in real life, writes Allan Massie
Hillary Clinton with her husband Bill in 1992 when he was Governor of Arkansas PIC: AFP/Getty ImagesHillary Clinton with her husband Bill in 1992 when he was Governor of Arkansas PIC: AFP/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton with her husband Bill in 1992 when he was Governor of Arkansas PIC: AFP/Getty Images

Rodham is an exercise in “what might have been” history written as a novel. It is also, to my mind, distasteful. I dislike living people being treated as fictional characters without being disguised, just as I dislike seeing actors impersonating politicians, members of the Royal Family and celebrities who are still alive, even when plays and films pose as documentary. Many will disagree. Nevertheless I think it impudent. The dead are of course a different matter.

Rodham is Hillary Clinton, and what we have is a mock-autobiography presented as a novel. Its basis is proclaimed on the front cover: “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?” Well, in one sense the answer isn’t either surprising or interesting. So it’s permissible for a reviewer to report that she becomes a senator and a Presidential candidate. Not so very different, you see. We begin in student days when young Hillary, already a serious, ambitious, high-minded liberal, meets Bill, who is not so high-minded but also ambitious and as liberal as his home state, Arkansas, permits. Nobody will be surprised to find that he is also excessively liberal in other areas where Hillary is not quite so liberal, though for a girl of her age and background she may be called quite liberated.

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Anyway, they meet and fall in love. Sittenfeld, boldly if smuttily, tells us what they did in bed together. Bill is as intelligent as he is charming, though a few have their doubts, among them Hillary’s sour and sarcastic father, though he is always putting her down – something Bill generously deplores. Anyway they live together in Arkansas where Bill is seeking election as Governor. This section is quite good. They get engaged. However, it can’t go on. Bill is incapable of controlling his priapism and when a woman approaches Hillary to tell her how Bill once “forced himself” upon her, it’s too much. Hillary opts out and moves to Chicago to work as a public-spirited lawyer. As for Bill, he becomes Governor and runs for the Presidency in 1992 – just as he did in real life. But fiction is different. The little woman he has married hasn’t real-life Hillary’s steel and there’s a car crash of a TV interview. So he doesn’t become President. Instead, he heads for California to become rich; not very interesting.

Meanwhile Hillary plods on. She has broken up with the man she loves and quite right too. Commitment to public service takes over. Admittedly she is not one hundred per cent virtuous; there are a couple of sneaky betrayals which cost her good friends, but her self-assurance is armour against this.

Having got rid of a Bill Clinton Presidency, Sittenfeld has to do some re-writing of American history, but hasn’t much to say about, for instance, John McCain’s terms in the White House, or indeed Barack Obama’s. Meanwhile, Hillary ploughs on. Her first bid for the presidency flops but, just as in real life, you are called upon to admire her tenacity. Does she get there in the end? To answer would be like telling you who killed Roger Ackroyd.

All one can say is that before the reader has reached this point, he or she may have given up on the long trudge through the years. Sittenfeld is a determined rather than lively writer. Some of what she has to say about politics and feminism is interesting, mildly interesting anyway, but it’s a strangely humourless life she presents and there is a sorry absence of irony.

The novel is on Hillary’s side. I just wish there was more interest – more fun – in the life Sittenfeld has concocted for her. Reading James Naughtie’s recent account of meetings with Hillary Clinton made her seem not only intelligent (as we’ve always been told she is) but rather more interesting than the common perception of her. Sittenfeld gives us nothing that isn’t in that public perception. Sad to say, the occasional moments when Bill re-enters the narrative are quite welcome. But the truth surely is that it was marriage to Bill that gave drama to Hillary’s life. Which is why a biography has more to offer than this dull exercise in make-believe.

Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld, Doubleday, 420pp, £16.99

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