It takes a village to create a demon, and that tireless work has produced the extraordinary boogeywoman that is Clinton, the conniving, corrupt, murderous, senile, pedophiliac, money-grubbing, cookie-hating, email-abusing harridan who terrifies Fox News commentators. Indeed, as the subject of thousands of wing nut conspiracy theories, Clinton may already be the most fictionalized person in modern political history.
But “Rodham” is something of a rarity in American publishing. The market has long featured highly partisan nonfiction books created exclusively for liberals or conservatives. Trump disciples and detractors can spend their whole lives cuddled up with memoirs, biographies, exposés and rants that confirm their polarized convictions. “Rodham,” though, is a high-profile novel — not a parody or a joke book, but a serious work of literary fiction — designed to rally the political spirits of liberal readers.
More than a decade ago, Sittenfeld published “American Wife,” a thoughtful, slightly melancholy novel inspired by the life of Laura Bush. “Rodham” is a related project but with a dramatic twist of fate built into its premise. It’s told in Hillary’s own voice, which adds to the uncanny quality of this real/not-real story. This is a voice we recognize, the voice of countless hours of TV interviews and debates, the voice of several best-selling memoirs, the confident, carefully modulated voice of a woman who has been telling her story for decades. Indeed, the first third of “Rodham” feels comfortably familiar. There’s bright young Hillary speaking at her Wellesley graduation in 1969, already burdened by the discontinuity between “how I seemed to others and who I really was.” Looking back over half a century, she realizes that the intertwined conditions of her life were set early: “my competence, my loneliness.”
When she meets Bill Clinton at Yale Law School in 1970, he’s already a famous flirt — so brilliant and charming. Sittenfeld re-creates the Arkansas Lothario in all his rapacious appetites for attention, for women, for french fries. Long disappointed in the dating game, Hillary can’t believe such a handsome man would notice her. She’s been self-conscious about her appearance since middle school, when a frank classmate pointed out, “You’re more like a boy than a girl.” When Bill smiles at her, she confesses, “There was a ripple, a kind of swooning.”
These early chapters follow the general outlines of Hillary’s life, and sometimes it’s hard to remember we’re reading fiction, not autobiography. But that becomes easier to remember when Hillary describes having sex with Bill: “We knew each other’s animal selves,” she says, permanently damaging my attitude about animals. Of course, we already know way too much about Bill’s sexual technique, but there are intimate details here that Ken Starr could only dream of. Although I can’t quote much in a family newspaper, suffice it to say that Hillary experiences “an almost intolerable ecstasy.” Multiple times. Even in Bill’s car.
These erotic trysts might seem over the top, but they’re all part of the novel’s corrective impulse, its determination to rebalance the way men and women exist in our political imagination. After all, if Bill can carry on and Donald Trump can grab women, why can’t a female politician have a healthy sex life?
It’s no coincidence that the novel’s inflection from history to alt-history is eventually sparked by sex — specifically Bill’s “compulsive infidelity.” Still in her 20s, Hillary decides she’s had enough. She drives away from the most serious relationship she’s ever had. From that point on, we’re in uncharted territory: Sittenfeld’s thought experiment about a smart, single woman dedicated to public service.
Yes, this is an implicitly polemical novel. It’s devoted to exonerating a politician who has been maligned for decades. But that motive doesn’t crimp the book’s energy or its suspense because there are other larger themes at work besides Hillary’s basic goodness. While telling a compelling story, “Rodham” provides an insightful analysis of the function of sexism in our political discourse.
The American history that Sittenfeld presents loops back through well-known events in Hillary’s career, but they’re reconceived outside the realm of her marriage to Bill. That alters some equations but not others. She’s still a resolute woman dogged by loneliness, contending with systemic condescension and suspicion. Everything about the way she’s regarded, addressed, photographed, reported on and tweeted about is determined by the fact that she’s a woman. In addition to the exhausting attention to her physical appearance, there are the contradictory demands of being commanding but matronly, authoritative but submissive, cheery but never witty, knowledgeable but not intimidating — all under the constant surveillance of journalists, pundits, comedians and fanatics frantic to create stories that fulfill their misogynistic fantasies. It’s a maddening, inescapable trap that Hillary sums up near the end of the novel in a rare, full-throated fit of outrage that will make any ambitious woman stand up and cheer.
But Sittenfeld is at her wittiest when re-creating the men who dominate modern American politics. Even though Hillary never marries Bill in “Rodham,” he remains a massive star in the political heavens, influencing the orbits of everything around him. He’s the supremely manipulative country bumpkin grinning his victims into submission. And as an extra bonus, “Rodham’’ captures Trump better than any other novel has so far. Sittenfeld showcases the real estate developer in all his bombastic narcissism and self-delusion. It’s an astounding, slaying parody, while also, mercifully, offering us a future that avoids today’s ever-expanding disaster.
The novel’s exculpatory impulse exacts a cost, though. As a study of sexism and American politics, “Rodham” is rich. But as a character study, it knows everything. That leaves little distance between the narrator and her words in which we can sense the mysteries of an actual mind. In that sense, “Rodham” mimics Hillary’s own careful presentation of herself. Perhaps what I’m tempted to call a flaw is merely another element of the novel’s verisimilitude.
In a moment of introspection, Hillary looks back and wonders what might have been. “Was there a version of me that existed in a parallel universe?” she wonders. “If I’d married Bill, would I now be Hillary Clinton? Hillary Rodham-Clinton?”
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House. 432 pp. $28