Title/Author: Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher: Random House
In a nutshell: In 1971, Hillary Rodham is a young woman full of promise: Life magazine has covered her Wellesley commencement speech, she’s attending Yale Law School, and she’s on the forefront of student activism and the women’s rights movement. And then she meets Bill Clinton. A handsome, charismatic southerner and fellow law student, Bill is already planning his political career. In each other, the two find a profound intellectual, emotional, and physical connection that neither has previously experienced.
In the real world, Hillary followed Bill back to Arkansas, and he proposed several times; although she said no more than once, as we all know, she eventually accepted and became Hillary Clinton.
But in Curtis Sittenfeld’s powerfully imagined tour-de-force of fiction, Hillary takes a different road. Feeling doubt about the prospective marriage, she endures their devastating breakup and leaves Arkansas. Over the next four decades, she blazes her own trail—one that unfolds in public as well as in private, that involves crossing paths again (and again) with Bill Clinton, that raises questions about the tradeoffs all of us must make in building a life.
Brilliantly weaving a riveting fictional tale into actual historical events, Curtis Sittenfeld delivers an uncannily astute and witty story for our times. In exploring the loneliness, moral ambivalence, and iron determination that characterize the quest for political power, as well as both the exhilaration and painful compromises demanded of female ambition in a world still run mostly by men, Rodham is a singular and unforgettable novel.
My verdict: This book made me want to check out ‘Chasing Hillary’ by Amy Chozick!
‘Rodham’, I must say, is a daring pursuit of a ‘What-If’ story. I mean, to write about a living public figure, even though it’s fiction, is certainly bold! And it can sometimes be confusing to a reader too. I wonder what would Hillary think if she does get her hands on this book. Appalled? Amused?
In this novel, Hillary didn’t marry Bill Clinton. She isn’t Hillary Clinton. She is Hillary Rodham. The Hillary who carved her own path in politics and ran for Senate, then President.
We follow Hillary Rodham from year 1970 to 2015. The first part is mostly about Hillary, her days in Wellesley College and then Yale. Then she and Bill met and fell heads over heels with each other, and then sex. A lot of it. So, I mostly skipped the sex part because it was too explicit and graphic for my taste.
She later moved to Arkansas with Bill. She was so smitten by him that she contemplated on staying with him even after a lady approached her and told her that Bill forced himself on her. They only parted ways when Bill told her it was for the best.
The second part is about Hillary setting out on her own without Bill, although their paths did cross throughout their careers. Then the final part, about her running for President.
Reading this book made me realize how biased we are towards women in power, in this case, the political field, and how challenging it is to strive and succeed in it.
Hillary had to put up with countless bullying. She was made fun of and inspired many ‘mocking memes’ when she used the term ‘on fleek’ clumsily during a recording, and the video went viral; Bill’s supporters shouted ‘Shut her up!’ and ‘Hillary sucks!’ mercilessly when he was giving his speech in one of his rallies; she was even disrespected by a radio host during an interview and she was also accused of sexual harassment by one of her ex-staff who said Hillary forced her to shave her legs.
I don’t know much about the real Hillary or her life. In ‘Rodham’, Hillary seemed distant and void of emotions. Almost nothing seemed to affect her, like even when she was pissed off or sad, she hardly let it show. When her dad derided her, or insinuated that she was fat or useless, or when she was disrespected by a radio host during an interview, she was never agitated as one normally would. And when she fought back, it was with very meticulously, carefully crafted words. She always thinks before she talks, even with her own family and friends. She had many failed relationships pre and post Bill, either because they thought she wasn’t ‘feminine’ enough and too smart, or she found them boring not intellectually stimulating.
She could also be cold and conniving – befriending Misty LePointe, one of her supporters who was a cancer patient, then using her to open her speech for one of her campaigns, pulling in Trump, despite her team’s advise, for her own benefit (Trump’s appearances and the accuracy of his voice really had me chuckling a few times!), and running against Carol Mosley Braun (a Senator in real life) when she saw her chance at winning, even when Gwen told her it was a racist move and knowing she’d be risking her friendship with Gwen.
But strip all that hard exterior away, we get a Hillary who can be vulnerable, and ‘fun‘. She was lucky to have Maureen and Rachel to turn to in times of need, and Maureen’s daughter, Meredith, who nicknamed Hillary ‘Darth Vader’, for fun times. My favorite moment was definitely when Hillary jumped into the pool in her bathing suit and unshaven legs, to join Meredith; or when she wound down for the day in bed, in her ponytail, with a cup of tea, making her to-do list, surrounded by her pillows and notebooks. Moments like these, which made her more ‘human’, were rare.
Women are scrutinized and judged so harshly all. the. time, especially women of power. If she’s single, she’s a lesbian; if she puts on weight, she’s asked to go on diet; if she’s decisive or opinionated she’s bossy or a bitch or difficult; she’s feared but never respected, no matter what she does or does not do.
Men who are sleaze balls get elected as president, while hardworking women candidates get booed at and publicly shamed. Men losing their cool wouldn’t be judged as harshly as women losing hers. This book made me empathize with female politicians more, and hold them in higher esteem.
Sex scenes aside, overall, I thought this was an interesting and a daring ‘What-if’ story. However, I was more fascinated by how Sittenfeld was able to weave fact into fiction to create a plausible plot for fictional Hillary than the story as a whole. I felt disconnected to the characters, including Hillary herself. But did I regret reading it? Definitely not! It turned out to be quite an interesting and at times, amusing story.
I wonder, in an alternate universe, when these two Hillarys meet, what would one say to the other? Who has made it further in life? Who’s happier? Who’s more contented? This book made me want to check out ‘Chasing Hillary’ by Amy Chozick.
‘Rodham’ has received many polarized reviews. So if you’re curious, read it, if not skip it.
I love reading ‘What-If’ stories. One that I enjoyed immensely and reviewed recently was ‘The Book of Longings’ by Sue Monk Kidd. Well-researched, fascinating and superbly told!
Have you read ‘Rodham’? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Have you read any other books by this author? Please share with me your thoughts!
Till then, Happy Reading and Stay Safe & Well!