Friday 19 June 2020

Rodham: A Novel | Curtis Sittenfeld

What a fascinating premise!

What a fascinating story!

What an amazing story teller!

Rodham: A Novel is hard to define, and even harder to classify or deconstruct. What is real and what is fiction is the thing that haunts you the whole time you're reading this story. At least it did for me.

The idea of sliding doors, alternate histories or the road not taken have always intrigued me, so it was only natural that I would be sucked into Curtis Sittenfeld's world, where Hillary Rodham refused to marry Bill Clinton.

Living on the other side of the world, my understanding of the nuances of American politics is basic, though. I suspect a lot of the references to real life stuff passed me by. Especially once we moved into the alternate story of a single Hillary, forging a career path unhindered by a husband or children (sorry Chelsea). I didn't know enough about what Hillary Clinton actually did do, to know how different things were for Hillary Rodham. Was that youtube video in Ohio something that really happened? Did she really go on a cooking show and was there some gaff about baking cookies? 

So I had to read the book assuming that the basic relationships were based on reality (with family, friends, colleagues, senators, media and backers etc), but that the paths they took were changed by her third 'no' to Bill. 

I assumed that all the conversations were purely imagined and the sex scenes nothing but fantasy! Please let the sex be nothing but fantasy. It was like reading about your parents having sex. You know they probably did it, but you definitely do not want to know any of the details. Ever!

After reading a couple of other reviews (Susan @The Cue Card and Girl With Her Head in a Book) I believe that being on the other side of the world and far removed from many of the incidents and people referred to, I did miss some of the cleverness and the humour. I spent a lot of time worrying about what was real and what wasn't. And I certainly found the middle section of the book rather dry and dull, as only stuff about politics can be dry and dull to the outsider.

It wasn't until we got to Trump and more recent times, that I was able to appreciate the changes that rippled out from that third 'no', to bring Rodham to her third run at the presidency in 2016. It was highly amusing seeing Trump's own words being used against him here, to support Rodham against her long-ago ex, Bill Clinton, who was running against her in the Democratic nominations. With Trump's support, Rodham was able to move into the White House on her own terms!

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book, was the thinking involved in Hillary's decision to leave Clinton back in the 70's. For two pages, Sittenfeld's shares the internal dialogue of a woman torn by her love for a man and her growing concern about his philandering ways. Should she stay and accept his wandering eyes (and hands and lips and penis) or should she go? Should she stand by her man or put her own needs first? Which choice could she live with? 

In the book, she decides (with Bill's support) that she should go her own way. This changes everything (and sometimes) nothing for both Hill and Bill. 

Sittenfeld said in an Esquire article in May 2020,
it's really thinking about fate versus free will and the butterfly effect and how potentially small choices that any of us make can have... Do they have huge consequences, or does our life resemble itself no matter what small choices we make?

I'm not sure that I believe in fate, or soul-mates or even that everything happens for a reason. Even though my life story with Mr Books could be held up as a perfect example of all three. In the end it's the stories we chose to tell ourselves about our lives that make all the difference.

In real life Hillary chose to stand by her man, warts and all. The love they felt for each other was strong enough to get them through the tough times. The compromises made, were ones they chose to live with. They embraced the life they made together. I don't imagine that they have ever imagined different lives for themselves than the one they have lived through together. They do not seem to be the kind of people who live with regrets.

Sittenfeld has not imagined a world of regret either. Instead, she has cleverly shown us how a completely different life might be possible. How bit by bit, experience by experience, it's possible to evolve into someone else if another path was taken.

I found Rodham to be fascinating in a voyeuristic kind of way, sympathetic in a very human way and fun and delicious in a rather daring kind of way.

Book 2/20 Books of Summer Winter


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. This is on my wishlist. I do admire Hilary Clinton and this sounds interesting. Thanks for your review.

    1. It was interesting & for someone who knows the real story better than I, you'll understand more of the references that sailed over my head.

  3. Huh, I had not heard about this. What a weird and fascinating premise. And yes, Hillary went on the Martha Stewart show to bake cookies! (Does Martha Stewart exist in Australia? Lucky you if not. In the 90s she was the queen of the aspiration to domestic and entertaining perfection. Then she went to jail for insider trading, and now she's a crafting brand.)

    1. We know the name Martha Stewart, & that she cooks and got sent to gaol, but I don't believe I could pick her out in a line-up!

  4. OK, I was kind of wrong? I really thought that happened, but apparently what actually happened was Hillary accidentally inspired the magazine Family Circle to have a first-lady-cookie bakeoff??? That is even weirder than what I thought happened. She and Martha did do some TV together though. I don't even know what reality is now....

    1. I got the idea that there was some cookie gaff made by Hillary originally, that meant she had to then show off her feminine qualities by going on cooking shows...but that may just the way the alternate universe worked...! In the book, the cooking show she appears on regularly is Beverley Collins Cooks!

  5. I have this, just been dithering about starting it. Thanks for this review!


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