Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Reading Curtis Sittenfeld's alternate history Rodham in the final days of the 2020 election was a bit of a surreal experience. The novel is an exploration of Hillary Rodham's life in a world in which she decides not to marry Bill Clinton. Sittenfeld begins the story shortly before Rodham meets Clinton, follows their courtship and eventually breakup, and then focuses on Rodham's career, eventually ending with a look at a very different election of 2016 and both Rodham and Clinton's roles in the election.
Although the Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton depicted in Rodham are not the same as the people they are based on, an individual's knowledge and opinion of the real people will certainly influence their reaction to Sittenfeld's novel, although at the same time, Sittenfeld's characters are strong enough to elicit reactions to their own actions and attitudes, independent of the historical figures. Sittenfeld describes their relationship and, although it is clear that there is an intellectual level, the discussions and depictions of their sex life are lurid and frequent enough that the novel does have a certain voyeuristic feel to it. Rodham is also insistent on Clinton's charisma, however it never fully jumps of the page, which makes the reader wonder why Rodham would remain interested in him, especially as his foibles become more and more apparent to her.
Following Clinton's first, failed, political run and their decision not to marry, Sittenfeld follows Rodham's career as a law professor at Northwestern, near her family in the Chicago suburbs. Following her breakup with Clinton, Rodham focuses her attention on her own career. Sittenfeld lets the reader know that she has dated, occasionally, but nothing serious. Rodham continues to move through life until 1992, the "Year of the Woman." Following George H.W. Bush's appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Rodham initially supports the candidacy of Carol Moseley Braun against Illinois Senator Alan Dixon. Her decision that Braun is unelectable means that Rodham will run against her, eventually taking the Senate seat for herself. Although this is the Senate seat that Barack Obama would eventually hold from 2005 to 2009, Rodham's victory apparently does nothing to derail Obama's own rise. Rodham's actions in derailing Braun's poltiical career, however, destroys one of Rodham's core friendships, even if Rodham doesn't realize the extent of the damage she's done, or why, for several years.
Eventually, Sittenfeld gets around to the election of 2016. She covers the intervening years with a simple list of the Presidents and Vice Presidents who followed Reagan. Two terms for George H.W. Bush, one for Jerry Brown, two for John McCain, two for Barack Obama, and then the election, which mostly focuses on the Democratic primary. Although there are certain things that are different, too many similarities with our own timeline exist. The Citizens United case occured in this timeline and was decided the same way. Upon William Rehnquist's death, John Roberts was still appointed to be Chief Justice, although by McCain rather than by George W. Bush. The biggest changes, however, are that the candidates in the Democratic primary are Rodham, Bill Clinton, Martin O'Malley, and Jim Webb. Bernie Sanders is nowhere to be seen and Donald Trump, rather than running, decides to support Rodham, although his political views eerily match those of the Trump who ran in 2016, leading to the question of why he would throw his support behind Rodham rather than a Republican who would more closely align with his views.
While Rodham explores an interesting branch point of history, the world tends to ignore the differences Sittenfeld has introduced, allowing the same events and players fulfill their destinies without change. As a character study of Hillay Rodham, it doesn't work because Sittenfeld doesn't really delve into Rodham's personality, and even when she does, it isn't clear how much of her construct is the historical Hillary Rodham Clinton and how much is the fictitious Hillary Rodham. The resulting book leaves the reader wishing that the alternate world had been better thought out and that Rodham had not been so distant.
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