One of the things that made me write the book is my own cu­rios­ity about free will. Are there peo­ple whose des­tinies are to be part of each other’s life, or is that idea pure non­sense?

Cur­tis Sit­ten­feld on her new novel

Vancouver Sun - - WEEKEND REVIEW - JAMIE PORT­MAN

Rod­ham Cur­tis Sit­ten­feld Ran­dom House

Just in case any­body is won­der­ing what Don­ald Trump and Bill Clin­ton have in com­mon, an an­swer of sorts is pro­vided on page 322 of Cur­tis Sit­ten­feld’s wickedly provoca­tive new novel, Rod­ham.

Here’s what you find: “… weren’t they two sides of the same coin, wasn’t Don­ald sim­ply a far less palat­able ver­sion of Bill? Rich and nar­cis­sis­tic and ver­bose, charis­matic and trans­fix­ing? Bill was far smarter, but was he re­ally less sleazy?”

Such is the view of Hil­lary Rod­ham as she pur­sues the golden grail of the pres­i­dency five years ago. Or rather, this is the Hil­lary we meet in the novel. That’s be­cause what hap­pens in these pages is a craftily en­gi­neered piece of al­ter­na­tive his­tory in which she never even be­comes first lady in a Bill Clin­ton pres­i­dency: hence, in mid­dle age, still sin­gle, and al­lowed to say what she thinks in a work of fic­tion, Hil­lary can pass judg­ment on the dev­il­ishly Arkansas lawyer she once wanted to marry, but didn’t.

“I feel like this book is go­ing to piss a lot of peo­ple off …” That’s the first com­ment on the Good Reads web­site where early pe­rusals of the novel, pub­lished by Ran­dom House, have gen­er­ated largely four-star rat­ings — and some un­ease about its sex­ual ex­plic­it­ness.

Be warned: This is a Hil­lary who en­joys sex, es­pe­cially dur­ing those law-school days when she and Bill can’t keep their hands off each other. Such scenes are likely to an­noy Hil­lary haters who pre­fer to view her as some sort of frigid ice queen, while scan­dal­iz­ing Hil­lary wor­ship­pers who think she should be can­on­ized. Mean­while, other read­ers will be an­gered by the book’s scathing por­trait of Bill Clin­ton and still oth­ers by its evis­cer­a­tion of Don­ald Trump.

As for Sit­ten­feld, she seems calmly pre­pared for what­ever storms may come. (And yes, Rod­ham has been thor­oughly checked by lawyers — a not-sur­pris­ing pre­cau­tion given that the Bill Clin­ton of this novel is flatly la­belled a sex­ual preda­tor and is also pur­port­edly in­volved in group sex.) “I never would write a book just to be de­lib­er­ately provoca­tive,” the 44-yearold nov­el­ist tells Post­media from her home in Min­neapo­lis.

“But I don’t know how a writer could ever fin­ish a book if the main thing in your mind was worry about how peo­ple will re­act. I write about sub­jects that are fas­ci­nat­ing to me.”

What fas­ci­nates her in this case is a tan­ta­liz­ing “what if” ques­tion. What if bright and am­bi­tious young Hil­lary Rod­ham, fed up with her boyfriend’s sex­ual cheat­ing, didn’t marry Bill Clin­ton in 1975?

“We’re in such un­usual times in this pan­demic,” this mother of two says re­flec­tively. “So one of my big­gest hopes is to give peo­ple who want to read this a re­ally im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Still, given the po­lar­ized drama of cur­rent U.S. pol­i­tics, the ap­pear­ance of a novel like this will not nec­es­sar­ily have a sooth­ing ef­fect. In­ter­wo­ven with the fic­tion is a lot of ir­refutable fact. Bill’s in­abil­ity to con­trol his li­bido and the charges of sex­ual ha­rass­ment are here, but so is a re­minder of sim­i­lar charges lev­elled against cur­rent Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas by Anita Hill dur­ing his Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings. Such in­tru­sions of real his­tory won’t be wel­comed by sup­port­ers of Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Joe Bi­den as he wres­tles with the al­le­ga­tions plagu­ing him.

This is not the first time that Sit­ten­feld has ven­tured into the world of Wash­ing­ton pol­i­tics. In her 2008 novel, Amer­i­can Wife, a char­ac­ter named Alice Blackwell was a sur­ro­gate for Laura Bush. This time Sit­ten­feld is more di­rect. Hil­lary is Hil­lary — or at least this author’s imag­ined ver­sion of Hil­lary.

Yet Bill Clin­ton re­mains a re­cur­ring fig­ure in Hil­lary’s first-per­son nar­ra­tive even as she moves from strength to strength both in the world of law and later pol­i­tics. She finds her­self in the U.S. Se­nate and he be­comes a Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­aire, with one failed mar­riage be­hind him but still ooz­ing testos­terone and a grin­ning en­ti­tle­ment when it comes to the op­po­site sex.

One con­tro­ver­sial chap­ter, set in 2005, sug­gests that mid­dle-aged Hil­lary, al­though suc­cess­ful and as­sured in her pub­lic life, is still in thrall to the man she didn’t marry 30 years be­fore. Hence her readi­ness to end up in bed with him again de­spite her belief that he is a sex ad­dict and a preda­tor.

Sit­ten­feld takes a side­ways ap­proach to ex­plain­ing this in­fat­u­a­tion.

“One of the things that made me write the book is my own cu­rios­ity about free will,” she says. “Are there peo­ple whose des­tinies are to be part of each other’s life, or is that idea pure non­sense?”

Fur­ther­more she can un­der­stand Bill Clin­ton’s charisma.

“I read the first 25 per cent of his mem­oirs to the point where he and Hil­lary marry, and I felt as if I was al­most fall­ing in love with Bill Clin­ton my­self. One of my rea­sons for writ­ing nov­els is to ac­knowl­edge how com­pli­cated peo­ple are. I think Bill Clin­ton has re­ally good and re­ally bad qual­i­ties, and I don’t think they are mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive.”

Sit­ten­feld re­peat­edly draws on re­al­ity to prop up the fic­tion. For ex­am­ple, Hil­lary’s fa­mous Welles­ley Col­lege grad­u­a­tion speech is here, sig­nalling her own for­mi­da­ble in­tel­lect — one rea­son, Sit­ten­feld sug­gests, why she con­nected with Rhodes scholar Bill on a level be­yond the phys­i­cal. It is in­for­ma­tive on her fam­ily back­ground — par­tic­u­lar in as­sess­ing her re­la­tion­ship with a dif­fi­cult fa­ther. But Sit­ten­feld knows that many read­ers will zero in on her sex life — at least as pre­sented in this novel.

There’s an episode in an au­to­mo­bile that will have most read­ers do­ing a dou­ble take. And in one of the book’s nu­mer­ous bed­room scenes, Bill wants to know if Hil­lary will be dis­gusted if he per­forms a cer­tain act.

Sit­ten­feld bluntly says there is no way she could have dis­re­garded sex in this novel. “So much of the first 160 pages is about fall­ing in love, and for a lot of peo­ple phys­i­cal at­trac­tion and chem­istry is a big com­po­nent of that. But all my books are pretty con­sis­tent in their de­pic­tions of sex. I try to be very thor­ough and very de­tailed about ev­ery­thing I write about. But sex is more provoca­tive, so that gets all the at­ten­tion.”

JOSEPHINE SIT­TEN­FELD

“I don’t know how a writer could ever fin­ish a book if the main thing in your mind was worry about how peo­ple will re­act,” author Cur­tis Sit­ten­feld says. “I write about sub­jects that are fas­ci­nat­ing to me.”

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