REVIEW: Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

In brief: What if Hillary Clinton hadn’t married Bill? What would Hillary Rodham have done with her life?

The good: The saxophone scene.

The not-so-good: The saxophone scene. (If you know, you know).

Why I chose it: Because Curtis Sittenfeld is an excellent writer and who else could cheer me up as I waited for COVID test results.

Year: 2020

Pages: 420

Publisher: Doubleday (Penguin)

Setting: America

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Curtis Sittenfeld is a fantastic writer. If you didn’t think that before and after reading Rodham, think of it this way. Who could take not one, but two of the most recognised people in America and beyond and create a fascinating story that expertly blends the real with the fictional? In other hands, this story could be at the very best a hot mess. In Sittenfeld’s hands, it’s brilliant.

I must admit to being a little squeamish about reading about real people but equally fascinated to see how this book would fan out. I know more of Hillary than I do Bill, as her time in politics coincided with my adulthood rather than childhood. I chose not to Google and Wikipedia my way through Rodham to see what was true to life and what wasn’t (although I was desperate to do so). I think that made for a better reading experience as I was often surprised by the turn of events and wasn’t disappointed by what wasn’t included. (Being Australian, I don’t know the details of either of the Clintons’ political lives and beyond). Overall, I loved this book and now I’d like to read the real Hillary’s books. She comes across in the novel as she does in real life – smart with a lot to say, put forward as well-researched arguments. But with the fictional Hillary the reader gets a lot deeper inside her mind, revealing the vulnerabilities, the uncertainty and the errors of judgement that make her human. With this, I was able to see behind the speeches and the pantsuits and reflect on her as a person.

The story begins as Hillary moves from Wellesley to Yale to study law. There she meets a red-haired, bearded Bill Clinton (Google for pics) and they fall in love. Despite the warnings from her friends, Hillary goes with Bill to live in Arkansas where he will make his first foray into politics (ultimate destination: The White House). Ultimately, Hillary makes the difficult decision not to marry Bill and embarks on a university career in Chicago. From there, she will begin her own political aspirations, starting in the U.S. Senate and eventually joining in the Democratic race for president. It won’t be an easy ride, as her past comes back to haunt her (and of course, being a woman doesn’t help). The race for the 2016 presidency gets the most page time, with a surprise opponent and the tips and tricks of a campaign taking on a wild ride. I think my favourite part of this section is how Donald Trump is portrayed. Sittenfeld absolutely nails his speech and his tweets. Given that I’ve been able to buy and read this book freely, I think it’s safe to say that Trump hasn’t read this book. Bill Clinton’s character was conflicting for me. On one hand, he was charming and seemed to have good intentions. On the other, he was just that bit unsettling – too charming, too gracious.

Rodham made me ponder about many things – feminism, sexual assault, race and politics. Yet it isn’t all serious. The saxophone scene made me giggle and gag in equal parts (at this point, I hadn’t seen pictures of young Bill Clinton). The fictional Trump’s tweets and actions had me laughing. I wish Barack and Michelle Obama had some more page time, but maybe that’s a story for the future. I also gained a new appreciation for the mechanics of U.S. politics – the endless campaigning in small towns and half empty halls and the need to write at least one book in the lead up to your presidential run. (So different from Australia, where some states might be lucky to see the leaders once or twice and books tend to be written after time in politics). Overall, it’s very well written and captivated my attention throughout. I can’t wait to see what Sittenfeld does next. After her fictional biography of a thinly disguised Laura Bush and a retelling of Pride and Prejudice setin Cincinnati and now Rodham, the sky is the limit.

3 thoughts on “REVIEW: Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Add yours

  1. This is the first positive review I’ve read of this book; everyone seems to be disappointed by it. You might be interested in watching a 4-part documentary on Hillary currently on SBS On Demand. It’s excellent. I learned so much about her that I did not previously know. It would be interesting to read Sittenfeld’s book now to see how close it is to real life…

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