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Posted on 30 Jun 2020 in Fiction |

CURTIS SITTENFELD Rodham. Reviewed by Shelley McInnis

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This new novel from the author of Prep and American Wife imagines what might have happened if Hillary Rodham hadn’t married Bill Clinton.

Towards the end of Curtis Sittenfeld’s fictionalised treatment of the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, she has the 2016 American Democratic presidential candidate pondering, somewhere on the campaign trail, journalists’ persistence in questioning her about why she is running:

I did like the work of holding elected office, and I liked doing things I was good at, and I liked being recognised for doing things I was good at. But as much as I wanted to be president, I wanted a woman to be president – I wanted this because women and girls were half the population and we deserved, as a basic human right and a means of ensuring justice, to be equally represented in our government… Some presidents cared about improving the world, and all of them had egos; but none of them had run because they hoped to gain entry to the highest office of power on behalf of an entire gender. Yes, I was me, Hillary, but I also was a vessel and a proxy.

For Hillary fans and connoisseurs like myself, who have read everything she has written, including What Happened, her post-mortem of the 2016 election, Sittenfeld’s Rodham succeeds in creating a believable Hillary and a joyful alternative storyline that has her dumping Clinton, winning the Democratic presidential nomination against him with – wait for it – the assistance of Donald Trump – and defeating Jeb Bush to become president in 2016.

It is a breathtaking tour de force for true believers and political junkies that had me, at various points in the narrative spanning Hillary’s life from geeky girlhood to White House occupant, laughing out loud. When she finally meets Mr Right she is within a hare’s whisker of the White House. Dates are difficult to organise:

No fewer than seventy emails had been exchanged in twenty-four hours by eight members of my staff about what Albert and I should do for our date on Saturday night: the ballet, the symphony, and a sushi restaurant were all deemed too elitist; a bluegrass show was deemed too risky securitywise because of the layout of the venue; Mexican food was deemed too blatantly pandering just prior to my arrival in Nevada. I also rejected bowling as pandering, and even if it wasn’t, I’d have refused on the grounds that I didn’t wish to publicly stick my rump in the air. Also vetoed were upscale hamburger or fried chicken restaurants, which could backfire when articles pointed out that I’d eaten a $17 grass-fed cheeseburger rather than a $3.79 Quarter Pounder with cheese from the McDonald’s two blocks away. At last, a reservation was made at an American bistro in Lincoln Park at which I’d order grilled chicken thighs ($15) and a glass of the house cabernet ($8). After discussion, my staff decided it was okay to leave it up to Albert what he’d order.

Some reviewers have been so moved by Sittenfeld’s depiction of Hillary’s relationship with Bill they’ve been broken-hearted when, for good reasons midway through the book, Hillary declines his second proposal of marriage. I, however, didn’t feel too sorry about this. Post-Bill, the book takes off into fascinating social and political territory. A hardworking worthy woman comes to believe that, yes, she can. Sittenfeld’s renderings of Hillary are astute, intimate, and sympathetic. Like her protagonist, she knows her stuff.  She pays attention. When in the end we find Hillary propped up in bed in the White House reading briefing papers, it feels so right and true you may have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that this, alas, is a fiction.

Sitting in the backseat of the town car, I could, to my surprise, feel the feeling, that charge familiar from other important moments in my life: the anticipation and focus, the elimination of all other obligations and ephemera, the reduction to just this moment, looking out the window at the sunny September evening, riding away from Union Square and toward whatever it was that was about to happen. On the sidewalk at the corner of Grant and Pine, a dark-haired woman in exercise clothes pushed a stroller containing a child I couldn’t see except from the knees down, in the form of a small pair of jeans and two little calves sticking out, the feet clad in brown leather slippers. The woman spoke animatedly to the child, and I thought of the minutiae and specificity of all our lives, how tightly fixed we are within the present moment even as the moment passes.

Curtis Sittenfeld Rodham Penguin Random House 2020 PB 400pp $32.99

Shelley McInnis is a Canberra-based book reviewer and memoirist whose home office still displays Hillary for President election ephemera. Stronger Together!

You can buy Rodham from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.