Do you remember what Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park says right after they have the grand tour of the dangerous reanimated dinosaurs?
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
That is the line that kept repeating in my head as I read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham. Meant to be a compelling exploration of “what if?”, Rodham sets out to answer the questions that many of us have wondered: What if Hillary had never married Bill? Would she have pursued her own aspirations first and foremost? Would we have had a female president even sooner than we thought possible? Would it have changed anything? Though the premise is intriguing, what could have been a feminist-glass-ceiling-shattering novel or at the very least a complexity-adding novel turned out to be poorly written fanfiction you’d find on a blog with MySpace level HTML. It’s just bad.
Rodham begins with our fictionalized Hillary and her iconic 1969 Student Commencement speech at Wellesley College. Hillary has a speech perfectly planned out but when Senator Edward Brooke spoke before her and avoided talking about anything of importance like recent protests, the Vietnam War, or civil rights, Hillary decided to open up her speech with an improvised but fiery response. Opening with a scene as strong as this one shows us that even though Sittenfeld is going to venture into uncharted territory, she’s going to root the beginning very much in reality.
This comes into importance later when Hillary meets Bill at Yale. It’s definitely a meet-cute and includes a romantic replay of their first date. Bill is charming and kind and Hillary is amazed to find a man interested in her mind and her body. But this is where things begin to get strange. As Sittenfeld paves the various stages of their relationship, she makes the baffling decision to include graphic descriptions of their sex life. With almost any love story, there’s going to be sex. If you’re lucky, it’ll even be steamy sex. But depictions of Hillary and Bill’s sexual encounters are less like a literary fiction look into the growing and deepening of a relationship, and more like a tattered 80s romance novel complete with Bill as Fabio and Hillary as a windswept vixen. This particular passage comes to mind:
“‘Please don’t get pulled over,’ I said, and after that I really couldn’t speak. I was writhing against his fingers. I lasted about two minutes, and then I was saying as quietly as I could, ‘Oh, baby. Bill. Bill. Baby, I love you so much.’ He stopped moving his fingers and just cupped me and I whimpered incoherently.”
With each sex scene, I asked myself why the author would include these in her book. More importantly, why would the author even imagine them in the first place? Reading them felt like repeatedly walking in on your parents having sex, I’m sure writing them didn’t feel any less embarrassing. And why oh why does she keep using the word “plunge”? I tried my best to narrow it down to a few reasons and this is what I was able to come up with:
A) The author wanted to shock and awe the reader
B) The author wanted to showcase Hillary as a modern, sex positive woman
C) The author wanted to allude to the possibility of Bill Clinton having a sex addiction by talking about just how often he wanted it
D) The author wanted to explain why it was so hard for Hillary to leave, the sex was just too good
However, even as I cycled through these options over and over again, I realized none of them fit. The real answer is hidden option E) Exploitation. It’s exploitive to write about their sex life. Hillary Clinton has had so many aspects of her life on public display for our consumption. She’s had her highs and her lows happen right in public view. She had to go through the turmoil of her husband’s infidelity on a very public stage. Even if Hillary Rodham in this novel is a fictionalized account, shouldn’t some things be left off the record? Shouldn’t our Hillary get to keep something to herself, something not speculated on?
Eventually after blushing our way through their relationship, we come to the big break in the story. The moment where the story we know meets two roads diverged in a wood and Sittenfeld chooses the most bizarre one possible.
The second half starts off with the breakup we all saw coming. Our two lovebirds part after Hillary decides not to move into the red brick tudor in Arkansas and decides not to marry Bill. The story then jumps swiftly ahead and when we meet up with Hillary many years later, she is still thinking of that man from Arkansas. Instead of humanizing her, this just feels like the literary equivalent of Brienne of Tarth standing in her nightgown and crying over Jamie-Fookin’-Lannister. She has a weird hand-holding affair with a married man. Any accomplishments she’s achieved thus far post-Bill are glazed over and never focused on too closely. When Sittenfeld had Hillary running for Senate and thinking of a Presidential candidacy, a part of me hoped that this story was finally getting back on track.
Unfortunately, the novel quickly declines into a Twilight Zone parallel universe complete with a 2015 Donald Trump using his quick-tweet fingers to come out in support of Hillary. Yes, you and I both read that right. Even in a fictionalized story, we are not immune to Donald Trump. Obviously, I enjoyed anytime a character brought up Trump and followed it with a snarky comment on how stupid or conceited he was, but no matter how many times you have him say the word “huge,” this isn’t believable in the slightest.
But that’s not even the craziest part. That comes later when we find out who she is running against in the Democratic Primary. Bill Clinton. The man we’re supposed to be imagining Hillary’s life without is someone still dogging her steps. It’s Bill Clinton who faces sexual allegations and still gets votes. It’s Bill Clinton that Hillary has to debate while worrying about sounding too emotional. It’s Bill Clinton whose supporters start a damaging and hurtful chant about Hillary. This time chanting “Shut her up!” instead of “Lock her up!”
Not only does this feel like a plot stretch of Freddie vs. Jason proportions, it’s incredibly frustrating. I know that even a fictionalized version of Hillary running for office would include a showdown with a privileged white male, but why make it Bill? It doesn’t serve a purpose other than being the strangest love-to-hate story of all time. Sittenfeld can imagine a world in which Hillary didn’t marry Bill, but apparently she’s unable to imagine a world in which Hillary is truly free of him.
Speaking of privilege, there’s also problematic elements in this novel that are never fully explored. Hillary chooses not to run for Senate, moving aside for a Black woman candidate, but then ultimately gets back in the race because she doesn’t believe the other woman has a shot of winning. There’s even a scene where Hillary ruminates over a possible Obama presidency and thinks “I found the news irritating and - because of his relative lack of national experience, race, quirky upbringing, and strange name - not particularly threatening.” Hillary goes on to tell a Black female friend of hers that it’s “not about race.” Exploring Hillary’s white privilege could’ve been an important and complex layer in this story. However, Sittenfeld doesn’t explore it. She just includes these bizarre scenes and moves along. If we’re going to reimagine a life, can we imagine a life in which the white protagonist is aware of her privilege?
I understand that with this story the author was trying to make valid points and observations about how women are treated in a male-dominated environment like politics, but any points she makes are lost in the fanfiction-style plot. Even inclusions of Hillary with her family do nothing to add to our image of the famous politician. In fact, the Hillary in this story feels so flat that it’s almost a caricature of the woman herself. It’s overdone. We all saw how her actual Presidential runs happened. We all saw how harshly she was judged against her male counterparts. We saw the angry chanters with their red hats and tobacco spittle on their lips screaming “Lock her up!” Those events played out in real life and in real time. We were witness to them. Did we really need a fictionalized story to drive any of those points home?
In the end, I was left with the realization that Hillary Clinton made her decisions and has stuck by them. Reimagining them doesn’t accomplish anything and in a way, it feels like a disservice to what she’s gone through in her real life. When I turned the last page, the Jeff Goldblum quote came back to mind. Just because Sittenfeld felt she could reimagine Hillary’s life, doesn’t mean she should’ve.
By Curtis Sittenfeld
433 pages. 2020.