Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is an alternative history book reimagining Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political path without former President Bill Clinton. It uses real history to piece together that potential path that still has its own bumps to the White House.
Fresh off her graduation speech at Wellesley College, Hillary Rodham heads to Yale Law School. There, she meets the charismatic Bill Clinton, who’s got the attention of most of their classmates with bragging about his hometown of Hope Springs, Arkansas, well known for its watermelons. His hometown pride and sense of humor attracts Hillary, who’s only dealt with boring boys. As Hill and Bill become an item, Hillary looks for confirmation from those around her to make sure it’s a good fit since there’s so much hope placed on her as a female striving to become a top attorney. Hillary’s mentor, Gwen Greenberger, a Black woman who owns a children’s rights legal nonprofit, doesn’t care much for Bill. But Hillary keeps going out with him. Their relationship grows and leads to multiple proposals until Hillary says yes. But their relationship is not perfect. Especially after Hillary finds Bill in bed with another woman. They still go off to Arkansas to help Bill get elected for governor. A serious allegation has Hillary rethinking everything, so when Bill loses the election, she breaks off the engagement and returns home to Illinois to start her life as a lawyer.
Hillary teaches at Northwestern University, but in 1992, Bill Clinton is running for president with his wife and two children by his side. Though she says she’ll help Carol Moseley Braun, who has the potential to be the first Black woman senator in the U.S. post-Anita Hill hearings, Hillary decides to run against Carol. She wants to be in politics now. Hillary wins the senatorial seat and has her eyes on the White House, a race she has lost twice before. But for 2016 she believes three times a charm. And so does Bill Clinton, who returns to the spotlight after dropping out of the 1992 presidential race when sexual assault claims bog down his campaign. Now Bill is a Silicon Valley tech tycoon, and with his money, he can run a better campaign. This throws Hillary off since she never got married nor had kids and wonders if she should’ve stayed with Bill back in the day to get that dream she’s supposed to want as a woman.
This book twists history in an interesting way where Hillary not only has her own path, but she lives the sometimes lonely life of a woman with ambition. It’s as if that was the path she could’ve taken in real life, but she comes from a generation where that path was seen as too treacherous; a woman needs a husband to be accepted by society. The story emphasizes her loneliness over the stretch of fortyish years as she still ponders if Bill Clinton was her soulmate because the path not traveled will always be reexamined time and time again.
In the book, there are two major Black women characters who are burned by Hillary, which struck me as a play on purpose to show how White women can eclipse the success of Black women without realizing it. Hillary’s mentor, Gwen, looks like she’s based on Marian Wright Edelman, the famous attorney behind the Children’s Defense Fund. The fictional Gwen also is in charge of a children’s legal nonprofit where Hillary works. Gwen is also married to a White Jewish attorney and has twin boys. Marian Wright Edelman is also married to a White Jewish attorney and has three boys. The story has Hillary and Gwen having a falling-out over Carol Moseley Braun.
In real life, Carol Moseley Braun does become the first Black woman senator in the U.S. for the state of Illinois, one of the elections won by women in support of Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony to Congress about sexual harassment allegations against U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who’s still on the bench today. The book has Hillary supporting Carol, then running against her and winning the election. Gwen accuses Hillary of destroying history. But it shows Hillary’s blind ambition circumventing other women, especially women of color who still have to pave their own political paths and make historical firsts. It also emphasizes the patience many politicians exhibit to let a candidate shine, with them hoping their shine comes two to six years later unless someone comes out of the blue and steals the shine then.
Overall, the book is a fresh take on revisiting Hillary’s potential presidency sans her former president husband, eliminating how she stood by his side throughout his career for so long and how she waited before she started her own political career. This shows what the beginning could’ve been for her and how the ending could’ve been in her favor.