Review by David Starkey
The first of the three parts of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Rodham is entitled “The Catch,” and it mostly follows the historical record of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham. The two meet at Yale Law School, where Bill is a year behind her, but years ahead of her in both charisma and ambition. He desires Hillary not because she is the prettiest woman at Yale, but the smartest, someone capable of partnering him to the presidency. The double entendre of the section’s title refers both to Bill being a great catch as a successful husband, and also the unfortunate catch that comes with being his girlfriend or wife: he will always be energetically unfaithful, no matter how much he claims to love you.
Part I ends in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1974, after the third time Bill asks Hillary to marry him. In real life, Hillary said, “Yes.” But in the alternate history of the novel, when it looks as though she will, despite everything, succumb to his charms, Bill wakes Hillary in the middle of the night and tells her: “‘You should leave. I’ll drag you down. The thing that’s wrong with me is incurable.’” He goes on to divulge the central truth of Rodham: “‘Us staying together is good for me and bad for you.’”
Part II fast-forwards to 1991. Hillary has returned home to Illinois, where she is a 43-year-old law professor at Northwestern. Even years later, her passionate affair with Bill has spoiled her for lesser romances, but she doesn’t seem particularly bothered. She’s more concerned with public policy. Inspired by the outrages of the Anita Hill trial, Hillary decides to run for Senate, a plan which proceeds smoothly until Carol Mosley Braun enters the race. In the world as we know it, Mosley Braun became the first woman African American senator, but in the world of the novel, Hillary Rodham is a more than formidable opponent.
The final section, which takes up almost the entire second half of the book, begins in Iowa in late April of 2015, and, with frequent flashbacks, follows Hillary’s third campaign to become president. To say too much about this part of the book risks spoiling the many delicious ironies Sittenfeld has concocted, but it is here that the alternate history premise goes into overdrive. Suffice it to say, by the time you reach Part III, you’ll have a hard time putting Rodham down.
Rodham is written in the first person, and it occasionally sounds like an actual politician’s autobiography—in other words, a little canned and reserved. (You don’t want to give your enemies too much ammunition against you in the next campaign.) Gradually, though, the reader grows accustomed to Hillary’s voice, and if she holds some things back, the novel discloses much more than the real Hillary Rodham would probably have revealed had she lived this other life.
Rodham was published before the 2020 election, and early readers commented on the deep loss to our country of the public servant described in the novel. Now that Donald Trump is finally on his way out the door, we can breathe a bit easier, although Rodham makes a persuasive case that Hillary without Bill would always have been a hard candidate to beat.