It’s not easy to fall in love with Bill Clinton these days. Sure, the former US president was once considered charming – some might even say magnetically charismatic. But he's 73 now, and the #MeToo movement has given everyone a different reading of his affair with a 22-year-old White House intern. Add to that his ensuing impeachment on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, and Bill seems an unlikely pick in the swoon-worthy love interest category.
But at the beginning of Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, Rodham, Bill Clinton is, well, dashing. He’s young, kind, funny, and witty. He’s also good-looking, charming, and madly in love with his new girlfriend, Hillary Rodham.
Soon enough, though, this Bill’s darker nature is revealed, and – this isn’t a spoiler, but rather the premise for Sittenfeld’s book – Hillary doesn’t marry him.
Rodham became one of the most anticipated novels of the year from the moment its premise was unveiled in 2017. In it, Sittenfeld rewrites history, imagining Hillary Rodham’s life if she hadn’t become a Clinton.
This isn’t the first time Sittenfeld, whose 2005 debut Prep has become a cult classic, has found inspiration in a former American first lady. In 2008, her novel American Wife fictionalised the life of Laura Bush to widespread critical acclaim. Eight years later came Eligible, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Ohio. So when the time came to start working on Rodham, Sittenfeld already knew how to successfully borrow from an existing narrative.
But re-inventing the life of the 2016 Democratic nominee, especially in Trump’s America, seems a bit of a riskier enterprise – although Sittenfeld herself describes it in a way that makes it sound like an almost simple task. “I had to make the decision to write the novel, and then I had to think through a few things, like ‘Am I going to use real names? Yes. For the very prominent people, I am,’” she says during a phone conversation from her home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “But once I had made those decisions, I was just moving forward. I didn’t revisit a lot of my own decisions.”
Rodham began with a short story. In 2016, an editor for Esquire asked Sittenfeld if she would like to write one told from the perspective of Hillary Clinton as she becomes the first female nominee in the US presidential race. The story, titled The Nominee, ran in May 2016. It became reality two months later, in July 2016, when the real Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination.
Then, of course, the 2016 election cycle went on, and something intriguing started happening. “Around the time of the election, I realised that school children who knew Hillary was running for president often literally didn’t know that Bill Clinton existed,” Sittenfeld says. “And it was sort of fascinating to me, especially after the election, to think about how the outcome might have been different if adults saw Bill and Hillary as separate the way that children do.”
Had America elected a second President Clinton, Rodham would likely not have happened. “I don’t think I would have written this book if she’d won the election,” Sittenfeld adds. “And given what happened, I would not have written a straightforward retelling of the 2016 election.”
Reading the book, it’s clear that it’s the work of an author who felt compelled to make sense of an alternate narrative and to relish in the power of “What if?” – which ends up informing our view of what actually transpired. “I think in some ways that’s one of the special and wonderful and mysterious things about fiction, that it can be intimate in ways that an interview can’t be, or a work of nonfiction usually can’t be,” she says. “But to be clear, this is a book of imagination and creativity, and it’s not Hillary’s memoir. It’s not a biography. I’ve never met her. I see this as an artistic experiment.”
On the phone, Sittenfeld is confident and gracious. She discusses writing in a way that reflects her experience and mastery in the domain, though she’s also willing to acknowledge the more challenging aspects of her work. With Rodham, she was “much more concerned” about reaching the end of the manuscript than about what people – including Clinton herself – might think about the finished product.
“I admire Hillary, but my primary goal was not going to be to write a book that would endear me to Hillary Clinton or potentially result in my meeting her,” she says. “I thought, ‘I just want to make the decisions that I think serve this story and make it complex and entertaining and alive. I think to some extent when you’re writing a novel, no matter what it is, you have to enter the world of the novel and try to execute your own vision. And then people are allowed to react however they react.”
Rodham has had a warm reception. Some have praised it as offering as a refreshing glimpse into a different world – an escape needed perhaps more than ever, now that Donald Trump is not only president, but in charge of navigating the US through the most turbulent crisis of our times.
Rodham manages to elevate Hillary’s experience beyond the specificities of its protagonist’s life. It’s a compelling thought experiment and an impressive artistic achievement, but it’s also the moving story of a young, booksmart young woman trying to find her place in a world where it doesn’t seem anyone will ever “love her brain”. It’s a tale of female ambition in a world where men call the shots. It’s an exploration of why we love the people we do, and what that tells us about ourselves. It’s a Hillary story, yes – one that resonates far beyond the confines of Pantsuit Nation.
Rodham is out in e-book and audiobook in the US (Random House) and in the UK; it is available in hardcover in the US and will be published in hardback on 9 July in the UK