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Rodham: What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?

Book review: Sittenfeld’s premise is rich with opportunity but this art imitating life doesn’t ring true

Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
ISBN-13: 978-0857526120
Publisher: Doubleday
Guideline Price: £16.99

During the 2018 publicity tour for Curtis Sittenfeld’s critically acclaimed short story collection, You Think It I’ll Say It, the author read The Nominee, its opening story, at Waterstones in London. The response was electric to what is a pitch-perfect account of an unnamed, female, US presidential Democratic candidate that is deeply ironic, insightful and provocative.

It raised high expectations for the novel it inspired with a new killer premise – what if Hillary Rodham had refused Bill Clinton’s marriage proposal and forged her own path?

If anyone was daring enough to attempt such a project, and had the chops to execute it, it would be Sittenfeld. Her 2008 novel, American Wife, offered a fictional memoir of a 21st-century first lady that strongly resembled Laura Bush. An international bestseller, it offered a nuanced portrait of a notoriously private woman that recognised her complexity, intelligence and agency beyond her public persona of “supportive wife”. It was a triumph.

The careful ventriloquism deployed throughout is so safe that an intellectual, spirited woman often reads quite dull

Anticipation for Rodham has been feverish, especially among those left heartbroken by the 2016 US presidential election. Would the alternate universe of the narrative offer redemption? Understanding? Closure, albeit fictional? We understand the power of fiction to reveal the hidden truths of facts and so the potential was great. The result, however, fails to deliver fully on the promise.


It is clear that Sittenfeld’s intentions were good. The author is excellent at interrogating the explicit and implicit sexism that hampers women at all strata of society; her great skill is in identifying the minutiae of life at a micro level that drives society at its most macro. The right questions are asked, but the narrative often shies away from definitively answering them. Whereas the original short story offers something revelatory, the novel offers much less illumination and instead further obfuscates the truth of who the real Hillary may be.

Perhaps it was the naming of Hillary in the text that was Sittenfeld’s undoing. In both The Nominee and American Wife, although it is clear who the subjects are, there is still a greater creative freedom that comes with not making it explicit. Instinct tells me if the author had awarded Hillary a fictional alter ego, as she did Laura Bush, it might have set her free to take flight and indulge in the compelling storytelling she has proven so capable of in the past. There is a notable absence of any significant unravelling of Hillary’s private interior motivations beyond what is already available from her own memoir.

A novel demands more from its characters in terms of complexity, internal conflict and evolution, and this version of Hillary is strangely devoid of that. Although Sittenfeld is brave enough to allow her fictional Hillary to make some unpalatable decisions, the careful ventriloquism deployed throughout is so safe that an intellectual, spirited woman often reads quite dull. And yet, Bill is presented as something of a monster. A charming, seductive one but a monster, nonetheless.

Presenting Hillary and Bill as a fictional version of themselves, as opposed to characters inspired by them, is problematic for a number of reasons. Not only is there the prevailing sense that Sittenfeld is writing with one hand held behind her back by the living, breathing presence of Hillary, the ethical quandary of fictionalising a woman’s life in her own time is very real.

Who among us hasn't considered, even fantasised, about what the world would be like now if she had become US president?

It makes for uncomfortable reading being unable to distinguish between fact and fiction in particular while reading the first section on the couple’s emerging relationship.

No-one has been vilified more by fake news than Hillary Clinton and it is a struggle to understand what benefit or enlightenment comes from further fictional assumptions being made about her, however well-intentioned. Perhaps the detailed sex scenes were an attempt to present the corporeal humanity of a woman so often accused of being cold, but in reality they are cringe-worthy to read and their portrayal feels tawdry instead of purposeful or grounding.

Who among us hasn’t considered, even fantasised, about what the world would be like now if she had become US president? Or tried to unpack the myriad reasons that led her to defeat? Questioning the part her marriage to Bill played is undoubtedly an interesting thought experiment, but perhaps it was just too soon to conduct it. We are living in an era where Hillary is still able to speak for herself so we don’t need more words put in her mouth.

For many, this novel’s concept will prove irresistible and there is much to admire in Sittenfeld’s accomplished prose, but on this occasion, art imitating life just hasn’t rung true.

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic