Many people hate Hillary Rodham Clinton. She has long been the target of deep-seated misogyny, exemplified by chants of ‘Lock her up!’ at Trump rallies during the 2016 presidential campaign. I say this as someone who has never been much of a fan, stretching back to the days when she defended her ghastly husband during the impeachment crisis of 1998. I was relieved when she launched her own political career, becoming in turn a senator, secretary of state and the first female presidential candidate with a real chance of winning. Even so, it’s not far short of tragic to watch an intelligent woman sticking with a man who has humiliated her so often. Why on earth has she put up with him? And what might her own career have been like if she had stayed Hillary Rodham? The American author Curtis Sittenfeld takes on the second of these what-ifs in her new novel, starkly entitled Rodham.
Sittenfeld’s previous books include American Wife, featuring a character based on the former first lady Laura Bush. Sittenfeld sets up a bold counterfactual: Rodham has the young Hillary Rodham, a brilliant law student from Chicago, meeting and falling in love with a shambling but charismatic fellow student from Arkansas – but although they have a relationship, she doesn’t marry him. Sittenfeld’s Bill Clinton is bear-like and a persistent suitor, flattering Hillary’s intellect and manipulating her anxieties about her physical appearance. Their sexual encounters are described in squirm-inducing detail, but it’s clear that Sittenfeld is working hard to show how a clever but insecure woman might be drawn to a less talented but vastly more confident man.