I really enjoyed American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld which is a thinly disguised account of the life of Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush and former First Lady of the United States. I also enjoyed Sittenfeld’s short story ‘The Nominee’ which is included in the UK edition of You Think It, I’ll Say It and is told from the perspective of Hillary Rodham Clinton a few months before the 2016 US presidential election. The premise of her sixth novel ‘Rodham’ – “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?” – is one of the most intriguing alternative history scenarios I can think of, so it was the first book I picked up at a physical bookshop after they reopened following lockdown.
The book is prefaced with a quote from Clinton’s most recent book ‘What Happened’: “My marriage to Bill Clinton was the most consequential decision of my life. I said no the first two times he asked me. But the third time, I said yes. And I’d do it again.” The first part is set in the early 1970s, when Hillary meets charismatic Bill Clinton and dates him for a few years while she is a student at Yale Law School. The second part jumps forward to 1991 and the third part concludes in 2015.
I don’t want to give too much away about what happens in the speculative parts of the novel, but the dates will reveal that political ambition remains a key part of their destiny despite the early end of their relationship in this version of events. This also has far-reaching consequences for the careers of several other prominent political figures while the paths that Sittenfeld has chosen for Hillary and Bill themselves are plausible based on their character traits. Even though the course of events has been deliberately changed, the alternative version also goes some way to explain why she stayed with him in reality.
Sittenfeld really nails the narrative voice to the point where I imagined it being read by Hillary herself (although I doubt she would ever agree to read the audiobook…). As a character study, Sittenfeld’s portrayal of Hillary is very sympathetic overall but also explores some of her complexities. Ardent fans may come to see how her flaws could be problematic and those who are more sceptical might appreciate her achievements more. The forensic examination of the double standards faced by women in politics is very well done. Even where some of the scenarios can come across as silly parodies, particularly in the final section where Donald Trump makes a memorable cameo appearance, it is always an engaging interpretation.
While Laura Bush’s two terms as First Lady were relatively low-key, Hillary’s real-life run for the presidency means her profile is much more controversial and well established in the public imagination. Enjoyment of this novel will depend a lot on whether or not the reader is a fan of Hillary and how knowledgeable they are about her life and career in order to appreciate the parallels and inversions Sittenfeld experiments with here. This makes ‘Rodham’ more risky as an exercise in speculative fiction, but it is one that Sittenfeld pulls off successfully.