Early in Curtis Sittenfeld's new novel, Rodham, our fictionalised yet real protagonist, Hillary Rodham (yes, that one), outlines her "Rule of Two" for making decisions. "If I was unsure of a course of action but could think of two reasons for it, I'd do it. If I could think of two reasons against it, I wouldn't." When it comes to deciding whether to marry Bill Clinton, she adds up five reasons against. "Yet even so, the margin between staying and leaving was so thin," she remarks, to which Sittenfeld affixes the playful: "Really, it could have gone either way."
"What if Hillary had never married Bill", the premise for this novel, is a strange one. Had Sittenfeld employed the Rule of Two, she surely would have scrapped the project entirely. For one, the Hill/Bill thing has been done to death. Then there's the matter of meddling with history, politics and the lives of real people. Sittenfeld has done this before when she wrote about Laura Bush in her 2008 novel American Wife. That had its critics, but it wasn't as overtly political as Rodham, nor did it have a real person's name and face plastered over the cover. As I devoured page after page, I kept asking: "Should I be enjoying this?"
The story is told in three parts: 'The Catch', 'The Woman' and 'The Frontrunner'. The first is a tale we know. Hillary's early life, her promise and ambition, the "shame" of her forwardness (a friend's father tells her she's "awfully opinionated for a girl", for which she is grateful, because it prepares her to deal with similar slights later in life). The Hillary we meet, whether close to the real Hillary or not, is likeable if precocious. I felt protective of her.
As happened in real life, she meets Bill, falls in love and moves to Arkansas. Then the decision not to marry him. "[T]he problems I have will never go away", Bill warns her - "problems" being a mild word for his sinister sexual conduct. "Us staying together is good for me and bad for you."
We meet our next version of Hillary in 1991, when she is working in Northwestern Law School, and follow her ascent to the top as a single woman. This is where story splits from reality and Sittenfeld's skills of hypothesis are called into action. She weaves real-life events with events as they might have happened. It's all very believable. Obama still runs, Bill embarks on a political career and even appears on a 60 Minutes-style chat show to confess to his sexual escapades. As his meek fictional wife shifts shyly by his side, Hillary watches on. "Bill needed an equal who'd act like even if he'd had affairs, so what?" she comments. These uncanny moments make the book. Even Trump makes an appearance, and it's hilariously spot on.
That said, I'm never sure how many layers of irony are at play in Sittenfeld's work - how much to let her away with. Are we supposed to lean in unabashedly to the utopian proposal? I hope not. The book is, in a certain sense, a balm for feminists and lefties, but in another sense a slap in the face. Hillary's righteousness is counteracted by her blind spots. She uses the word "prostitute" rather than "sex worker". She judges other women. When a black woman threatens her bid to run for the Senate, she insists "this isn't about race", to which her black colleague retorts: "This isn't about race for you." The tectonic plates of social change shift beneath the book's narrative. There is something fated and sad about the whole endeavour. It's either problematic or genius. Because I like to believe Sittenfeld knows what she's doing, I'll go with the latter.
Let's talk about sex. Prepare yourself for "the nudging of Bill's erection" and worse. But cries to nominate this book for the Bad Sex Award might be misplaced. What's more likely - and this is something the very existence of the Bad Sex Award fails to understand - is that bad sex is the point. Awkwardness. The precipice of what you do and don't want to know/see/think about. If you were to sum up Sittenfeld's style, you might use the title of her most recent short story collection. You Think It, I'll Say It.
I like a writer who dares. Furthermore, I like a writer who dares without doing so at the expense of the reader. Sittenfeld's books follow a tight but mysterious structure - there is always some gravitational pull keeping the narrative toppling on. Her sentences are punchy, never pretentious. Maybe that's her superpower; her deadly charm.
Maybe I liked this book or maybe I simply fell for it, like a bad man, like a Bill. I shouldn't want to take its hand, forgive its digressions. But reader, I do.