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Hillary minus Bill equals ‘Rodham’

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There are few literary questions I find more engaging than “What if?” I’ve always been drawn to narratives that offer a glimpse at an alternative version of our world, guessing at what might have been had something – anything, really – been different.

These questions tend to be more the purview of speculative fiction, but sometimes become devices used in the telling of altogether different kinds of stories.

That’s the category in which “Rodham” (Random House, $28), the latest from bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld, falls, a book that asks and answers a singular question:

What if Hillary Rodham never married Bill Clinton?

From this fundamental premise, a complex and inventive narrative unfolds, spread over three time periods – the early ‘70s, the early ‘90s and the 2016 presidential campaign – following the career of Hillary Rodham as she works her way through the American political landscape of the last half-century. Sittenfeld offers a portrait of a political life unlived, one that paints an engaging and sometimes surprising picture of what might have been.

We start with Hillary’s graduation from Wellesley in 1969. At the time, her speech at commencement – the first-ever by a student at the school – received a good deal of attention, including national coverage. We follow her to Yale Law School, where she carves out a niche for herself as one of the brightest minds at the institution, though many of her peers and professors still carried some less-than-enlightened views regards a woman’s capabilities.

It was there that she met and fell for a young man in the year behind her, a genial Southern charmer by the name of Bill Clinton. His combination of good looks, brains and aw-shucks charisma made him an object of much desire, but to Hillary’s surprise, he seeks to be with her. Their relationship is impassioned and stimulating, with each confessing their ambitions to the other (Bill’s in particular were grand goals). As a couple, their future seemed to be unlimited.

She followed him to Arkansas, where he sought to begin his political career, taking a teaching job at the University of Arkansas law school. In their time there, he proposed several times, with Hillary putting him off. And here we have our point of divergence: instead of eventually accepting Bill’s proposal and wedding him, she embraces her doubts and breaks off their relationship.

From there, a new and different path unfolds in front of Hillary Rodham. It’s a path that sees plenty of similarities – time in the Senate, presidential campaigns, etc. – but numerous differences as well … and not just for her. The changes wrought by that one decision reverberate throughout a significant portion of American history, a near-half-century that puts some familiar figures in unfamiliar places (including a few that are VERY unfamiliar).

And in the midst of it all is Hillary Rodham, a woman who is building a career – and living a life – that is undeniably her own.

“Rodham” is an interesting reading experience. This version of Hillary Rodham serves as the narrator of her own story; Sittenfeld endows her with a distinct voice, one consistent with what we know of her life but also very much its own. Hillary as character is certainly engaging, with an inner life defined largely by her devotion to the law and public service. All in all, this version of Hillary feels plausible, meaning that “Rodham” clears the most onerous obstacle to its success.

What Sittenfeld has created is essentially an alternative rendering of American history. The ripple effects of Hillary refusing Bill’s proposal are wide-ranging, leaving a number of important political figures to land in very different positions; one of the things we get during the jump from the early ‘90s to 2015 is a listing of U.S. Presidents and Vice Presidents from 1988 through 2012 – a listing that bears some significant differences from our own. All of it through the eyes of a person with the intelligence and savvy to offer a compelling view of it all.

This isn’t Sittenfeld’s first go-round in imagining the interior life of a prominent American political figure, having offered up a fictionalized take on Laura Bush in 2008’s “American Wife,” though this one benefits from eschewing the cosmetic changes and embracing Hillary as a real person. Sittenfeld’s Hillary is smart and observant, a good person with good intentions who is also a cunning political animal that occasionally succumbs to cynicism. And the history that unfolds along the way is well-constructed and thoroughly thought out; every shift makes sense in the grander scheme, both in terms of the individuals involved and the overall political structure.

It doesn’t hurt that Sittenfeld can put together some gorgeous sentences, exquisitely evoking the internal self-policing that comes part and parcel with being a powerful woman; she finds the words for the delicate dance on the wire, where one side is “shrill” and the other “slut.”

Now, “Rodham” might not be as immersive as it could be. At times, it feels as though the two big pieces of the book – Hillary as an individual and the world in which she operates – just miss connecting. Both are strong when viewed on their own, but there are definitely some connective misses. It’s also worth noting that while Sittenfeld’s explorations of Hillary’s personal life are engaging for sure, they don’t always connect to the larger picture as cleanly or clearly as they might.

It’s interesting to see the speculative “What if?” being addressed in this way, with the sort of literary sophistication that you don’t always get from alternative history – particularly when dealing with real-life figures with whom we have a longstanding familiarity. Yes, “Rodham” has its issues, but they are largely outweighed by a thorough and compelling portrait of what Hillary might have become and a political world brought forth with real verisimilitude.

All in all? I’m with her.

Last modified on Tuesday, 26 May 2020 11:48

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