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
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.”
“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.”