If you are a Democrat, a feminist, or both put together, the wish of your life has to be that you could manage a do-over of the night of Nov. 8, 2016, when, in the span of less than four hours, the election of Hillary Clinton as the first female president went suddenly, badly awry. If only you could somehow make things different, you think to yourself. But worry not, someone has. In Rodham, a new novel by Curtis Sittenfeld, Hillary not only wins over Trump but leaves Bill Clinton, defeats him, and reaches the White House alone.
Fittingly, the book begins not with Hillary’s birth but with her debut in the great world of politics: May 31, 1969, the day she graduates from Wellesley as the first female valedictorian, gets into a dispute with Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, and earns a space, along with four other students, in a Life magazine story about future leaders. This makes her a celebrity when she enters Yale Law School later that year and brings her to the attention of Bill Clinton, a Rhodes scholar from Arkansas. Opposites may attract, and such is the case when big, charismatic Bill meets small and plain-looking Hillary and the two fall madly in love.
Paradise ends for the lovely young couple when they move to California one summer in law school. Hillary takes a summer job in a law office and finds to her horror that Bill has been sleeping with her boss’s daughter, a brutal but not entirely unexpected development. “I was a hardworking and not beautiful middle-class Midwestern girl with a mean father. I had never believed the world existed for my enjoyment,” she says to herself. “I believed instead that every situation was a trade-off, that there was always a catch.”
The catch, in this case, is that Bill will slip, and the trade-off is that she will forgive him because of their bond and because of the political skills he brings to their enterprise. (In the real world, as detailed by Sally Smith in For the Love of Politics, by this time, they were already planning for sequential presidencies.) But in Rodham, in 1974, a woman approaches Hillary in a grocery store and tells her that while he was running for Congress, Clinton raped her in his campaign headquarters. Hillary decides she believes her. She and Bill have a showdown that leaves both of them sobbing. Then, Hillary leaves him for good.
Sittenfeld could have gone on with her fictional account of real people doing real things, such as Hillary sinking Bill’s healthcare proposal in 1994 or finding out, in 1998, that Bill fooled around with Monica Lewinsky and a great many others. Instead, she takes Bill and Hillary in directions that are far less compelling than their real story and which only prove that in life, as in fiction, the Clintons are interesting in their strange combination and really quite boring apart.
Sittenfeld’s Bill marries a sweet little thing who stays home and bakes cookies. She blows up his chances of running for president on 60 Minutes in 1992 when, instead of fiercely defending him against accusations that he had an affair with a lounge singer in Little Rock (as did the real Hillary), she breaks down and cries. Rather than heading off to the White House, Bill goes off to Silicon Valley, where he makes millions, divorces the homemaker, and marries the first of his two trophy wives.
Hillary, for her part, spends the next 16 years in a funk, practicing law and teaching classes, until the confrontation between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas draws her back into politics and the dreams she had left behind. She wins the Illinois Senate seat won in reality by Carol Moseley Braun, while George H.W. Bush wins reelection against Bob Kerrey, who takes the Democratic nomination in Bill Clinton’s place. (The real Hillary entered the Senate in 2000, in a historic campaign run from the White House, strongly supported by a guilty Bill Clinton and aided by voters who wanted to help the wronged woman get a fresh start in life.) In this book, 1992 is the great year, in which Hillary rises with no help from Bill, and Bill goes down for the count because she’s not there to aid him.
Sittenfeld never tells us just what it is Hillary does in the Senate, but she rises in it nonetheless, through demonstrations of brilliance that are never explained. What is explained is her dislike of Sam Brownback, who appears in this book as John McCain’s vice president, “one of those men who is pleasant enough to interact with directly while being so conservative on matters of taxes, health care, and reproductive and LBGTQ rights that his disdain for anyone unlike himself was a form of cruelty,” though the word “deplorables” never comes from his lips.
No slips come from this Hillary, who ascends like the rising sun, surrounded at all times by adoring young aides who are stunned to discover that their repressed employer once had a thing with Bill Clinton, a one-time governor of Arkansas, now a louche billionaire out in California who is thought to have had work done on his face. “It’s weird you almost married Bill Clinton because he seems so unworthy of you,” says one young assistant. That’s the message of the book in a nutshell.
Picture the scene, then, in 2015, when the fictional Bill and Hillary announce within days of one another that they’re both running for president and Hillary discovers that she has an unexpected supporter in one Donald Trump. “She’s no beauty,” says Sittenfeld’s Trump, “but that’s what we need for president.” In this book, it’s Bill who draws crowds by attacking her, though in a more muted manner. “A strange effect of having interacted with Donald,” this Hillary muses, “was that Bill’s presence seemed comparatively refined.” The wheel comes full circle in 2016, when the woman who approached Hillary in 1974 to reveal that Bill raped her emerges near the end of the campaign to tell the whole world her story. The woman who stopped Bill’s marriage to Hillary ends his campaign and gives her the White House. Can karma be better than that?
But which life, hers or the one in the novel, would the real Rodham/Clinton prefer? In the novel, she gets to be president, but after too many years of emotional vacancy. In the real world, she lives in the White House as only the first lady, but she is the first lady, and gets to be senator, secretary of state, an idol to millions of women, and a wife, mother, and grandmother (for all his affairs, Bill always backed Hillary’s ambitions and stands as the love of her life). All in all, the real life seems the much better bargain, and itself a drama of the highest level, as none but the Writer of Scripts in the Sky could bring off.
Noemie Emery is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and is the author of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.