In undergrad, I picked up a used copy of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, a fictionalized look at Laura Bush’s life, at the Dusty Bookshelf (Manhattan, Kansas’s favorite bookstore). I really enjoyed Sittenfeld’s writing and the fictional exploration of a real person’s life was interesting.
Because of this, and because of how talked about it was, I thought I would enjoy Sittenfeld’s most recent release, Rodham, an exploration of what Hillary Clinton’s life may have looked like if she had never married Bill Clinton, which was published in May 2020.
And then I read some of the early reviews of the book. (which can be found conveniently at these links: New York Times, NPR, Vox, Washington Post, The Guardian, and Kirkus).
And then I actually read the book.
And let me tell you, I imagine it felt sort of gross to read this book in May. It felt even grosser to read it in November 2020 after the election.
All of this to say: This book, while an absolutely fascinating cultural artifact, is not good. And so you don’t feel compelled to read it, I decided to share all of my thoughts with you here. Spoilers abound ahead – proceed at your own risk.
The Weird Pacing
One of many things that bugged me about this book is the pacing.
Rodham is divided into three sections. The first section, “The Catch” starts in 1970 and spans 4 years and 150 pages and is all about Hillary’s relationship with Bill. The second section, “The Woman” starts in 1991 and covers the period of a year in 80 pages. The third section, “The Frontrunner” covers roughly the last 200 pages of the book and while it’s ostensibly set in 2015, it bounces around in time to the 90s, and through the 2000s.
Given that Rodham culminates with Hillary’s election to the presidency, it makes sense that Sittenfeld would spend the most time focused on her political career and her presidential run. However, the bouncing around in the third section didn’t work well for me even as it intended to create tension and dramatic reveals especially in terms with Hillary’s brushes with Bill Clinton over the years.
In terms of things that actually occupy the most emotional real estate of Rodham, the first section of the book doesn’t pull the emotional punches in Hillary’s relationship with Bill. In my opinion, this was the portion of the book that took too much space up give that this book was supposed to be about Hillary without Bill.
Another pacing problem for me was all of the years that the book skipped in between the sections. While the third section attempts to rectify this by hitting some of the key points in the years that it skipped, ultimately there were too many lost years for me to feel comfortable with.
The Weirder Tone
My second major issue with this book is the tone that Sittenfeld takes when writing from Hillary’s perspective. Given that Sittenfeld is writing from the point-of-view of a person who is actually still alive, this didn’t actually surprise me.
This weirdness made itself apparent early on when Hillary is in her “nest” as she calls it for the night and describing her nighttime routine:
Here’s what really struck me as odd about this scene: The use of the word “urinate.” Does any real person actually sit there and in their mind use the word urinate? I don’t think so. But something about this moment stuck out to me while I was reading and really made me see a roboticness in Sittenfeld’s prose and her characterization of Hillary.
Other major tonal issues don’t pop up until the third section, when it’s revealed that Hillary’s major competitor for the 2016 Democratic Party nomination is none other than Bill Clinton. This just feels like a cheap shot at this point in the book and Sittenfeld has Bill’s campaign adopt some features that are reminiscent of the Trump campaign including a cheer of “Shut her up!” and then there’s a whole weird plot point of Hillary letting her own morals slide and accepting a public endorsement from Donald Trump. I didn’t feel like any of this felt genuine at all, instead it felt like weak writing.
The Weirdest Sex Scenes
I would be remiss if I didn’t write about the weirdest, most disconcerting part of Rodham which is the rather detailed sex scenes that Sittenfeld writes for the years of Hillary’s relationship with Bill. I will not include any direct quotations here to spare you from what I had to go through.
The sex scenes occupy a lot of space in the first section of the book, and they’re not well written sex scenes. They’re weird, cringe-worthy, and the language isn’t smooth or natural. There is one highly humorous scene in which Bill plays the saxophone naked for Hillary. (His tune of choice? “When the Saints Go Marching in”).
I understand why Sittenfeld included all the sex scenes, to show the magnetism that Bill had and why Hillary was attracted to him and ultimately why she chose to leave him. What I don’t understand is why there had to be as many sex scenes that were as detailed as they were.
What was the real point of this book?
This book is a fascinating cultural artifact, something that could only have been written in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It’s obvious wish-fulfillment for a presumed reader that is politically left-leaning who wants to see what political heights a woman could reach without a man’s baggage holding her back.
But here’s the thing, the fulfillment falls flat when Hillary’s actual election to the presidency is skipped over. The big strength comes in her winning the Democratic nomination but not her actual election. The book ends with Hillary telling readers she’s a year into her presidency, but the reader gets no details about that. I want to see Hillary get elected and be president, not to see the ultimate climax of Rodham come with Hillary’s triumph over Bill. Ultimately, this unsatisfying ending felt like it undercut what this book was supposed to be about.
If you still want to read Rodham, I’m not here to stop you, after all it is an absolutely fascinating cultural artifact to consider! Meanwhile, if there’s a book you’re curious about but don’t want to read, suggest it in the comments and I may make more posts like this in the future.