BOOKS|Reader, She Didn’t Marry Him. Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘Rodham’ Reimagines Hillary.


Reader, She Didn’t Marry Him. Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘Rodham’ Reimagines Hillary.


Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep” (2005) is among the shrewdest coming-of-age novels written so far this century. I sometimes wish it had a different title and cover, in place of the image of a pink and green grosgrain ribbon belt. I give the book to young people and they look stricken, as if I’ve handed them a pink polo shirt and told them to wear it with the collar popped. Before they’ve opened it, they’ve misjudged the novel entirely.

Titles and names matter. It used to be a truism in politics that if you could get voters to call you by your first name (Boris, let’s say) or an affectionate nickname (Ike), it augured well for your prospects. This wasn’t so for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The title of Sittenfeld’s new novel about her life employs her blunter, grittier maiden name: “Rodham.”

“Rodham” presents a counterfactual. It asks: What if nearly everything in Rodham’s life had been the same, but after Yale Law School she turned down Bill Clinton’s offer of marriage? This novel also proposes, in its alternate universe, that Bill Clinton’s political career was derailed by earlier sexual scandals, so that the list of American presidents and vice presidents elected between 1988 and 2012 looks like this:

1988: George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle
1992: George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle
1996: Jerry Brown and Bob Kerrey
2000: John McCain and Sam Brownback
2004: John McCain and Sam Brownback
2008: Barack Obama and Joe Biden
2012: Barack Obama and Joe Biden

This novel builds toward the 2016 election, in which Rodham will face off against several challengers, with Donald J. Trump smashing crockery and clearing intestinal gas in the wings.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of May. See the full list. ]

This is the second time Sittenfeld has entered the mind of a notable political spouse. In “American Wife” (2008), she told the story of a woman who strongly resembled Laura Bush. That book’s most ringing lines were addressed to voters: “All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power.”

Reviewing “American Wife” in The New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that Sittenfeld’s portrait of the Laura Bush character was more Norman Rockwell than Francis Bacon. This is true again in “Rodham.” The novel is intelligent and respectful and well made but bland; it is warm bread instead of toast.

  • Thanks for reading The Times.

Subscribe to The Times

Sittenfeld opens with Rodham’s 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley, a generation-defining moment that got her written up in Life magazine. Bill Clinton remembers that article, in this novel, when he meets Rodham at Yale.

His pheromonal impact on her is Tolstoyan.

He is brilliant and charming and, bearded, resembles a lion. (In Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir, “Living History,” she says he resembled a Viking.) He falls in love with her, and she can’t quite believe it. “His smile,” she says in this novel, “may have ruined my life.” He has amazing hands. Being with him is a bit awe-inspiring, like walking behind a waterfall.

She’s long been something of a cerebral tomboy, a young woman who, she thought, could not aspire to dashing men like him. Back at Wellesley, after a date that went nowhere, a friend said to her, “You need to flirt more.” Rodham replied, imploringly, “I gave him a biography of Reinhold Niebuhr.” Her friend said, “That’s the problem.” She is advised to wear dresses with low necklines.


Curtis Sittenfeld, whose new novel imagines the life of Hillary Rodham if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton.
Credit…Josephine Sittenfeld

The Clinton-Rodham love affair is a highlight of this book. (He plays the saxophone naked for her.) They are together for several years, on both coasts and in Arkansas. One day she catches him kissing a younger woman in Berkeley, and they fight. He tells her it means nothing, that he loves only her but he has a compulsion to chase other women. He’s like Thomas Haden Church’s character in the movie “Sideways,” who says to Paul Giamatti’s character, while wincing from being beaten up by a woman he cheated on: “You don’t understand my plight.”

Bill Clinton is close to demonic in “Rodham.” At one point, he says to Hillary: “You’re a smug bitch who drives people away because you think you’re smarter than everyone else. Of course you don’t find it hard to be faithful when you don’t have other options.” They break up. The portrait of Bill Clinton as sex pest in this novel is dark, and grows darker. He ultimately ends up in Silicon Valley, where he contemplates a return to politics.

The novel flashes forward 16 years, to 1991. Rodham is now 43 and living alone in Chicago, where she’s a tenured law professor at Northwestern. She’s ardent, impressive, progressive, plugged-in. When she sees a chance to run for the Senate in 1992, she takes it and wins, even if it means losing a close black friend, upset that Rodham would compete against Carol Moseley Braun.

One of the impressive and moving things in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s own memoir is the sheer number of good friends she made, and kept, over the years. This novel boils those many friends down to a very few.

“Rodham” has its intimacies, even if it’s not an especially interior novel. We read about her bad hair days, her jogging, her occasional diets, her white noise machine, her “ritual predebate diarrhea.” Late in the novel, she brings condoms and a container of K-Y jelly to a date.

Yet she remains essentially distant. If she’s not as creaky as an animatronic president at Walt Disney World, she is somewhere between that and a truly inhabited human being.

This is skillful ventriloquism, yet Sittenfeld never occupies her subject at an animal level. Rodham never has a thought, in this novel, that stabs you or comes from anywhere close to left field. As if it were the Great Salt Lake, you won’t sink in this book — but it won’t quench your thirst, either.

By the time Rodham runs for president in 2016, there are incidents in her past that opponents seize upon — an investment deal that calls to mind the Whitewater controversy, for example, and a suicide that has echoes of the death of the former deputy White House counsel Vince Foster. Sittenfeld deftly shuffles these details into her story.

It wouldn’t do to give away more about the final third of this book. Suffice it to say that when chants of “Shut her up!” begin to swell at her opponent’s rallies, she is perplexed, and we are perplexed anew at what it might be that so divides people about Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The best thing about reading “Rodham,” while living through our government’s response to the coronavirus, is that it allows us to do something some of us were doing already, which is to recall her competence and empathy and to miss her enormously.

Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.

By Curtis Sittenfeld
420 pages. Random House. $28.

Books of The Times

Book reviews by The Times’s critics.

Rivers Merge in St. Louis. So Do Racism, Violence and Exclusion.

Wayne Koestenbaum’s Cerebral, Smutty Essays Playfully Disobey the Rules

Susannah Kay for The New York Times

The Most Important (and Literary?) Meal of the Day

Jillian Tamaki

Jennifer Weiner Used to Read Her Father’s Medical Textbooks for Fun

Thoka Mayer


Virtually as soon as it was published, Hans Morgenthau’s “Politics Among Nations” became one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
Associated Press

The Book That Shaped Foreign Policy for a Generation Has More to Say

International readers subscribe for $2.00 a month.
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someonePrint this page