Certain seminal moments in America’s recent history have imprinted themselves so forcefully on the nation’s consciousness that they appear tellingly and repeatedly in its fictions: 9/11, the Iraq War, the election of America’s first black president and, lately, Donald Trump’s electoral triumph. In a manner similar to carbon dating, one can clearly identify novelist Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut short-story collection as a product of (and commentary on) late 2016: ‘What’s it like to be the first major party female nominee for president of the United States of America?’ asks a journalist in the opening story. Hillary Clinton waits offstage, ready at last to accept the Democratic Party’s official nomination. It’s July and to the outside world she is ‘confident’, ‘humbled’ and ‘optimistic’. Privately, she envisions with pleasure her election and then re-election, her presidency concluding in 2025 with a final exit interview: ‘How delicious it will be to stop trying to convince people!’ It’s a sympathetic portrait of a woman who, having grown up in the 1950s – ‘You’re awfully opinionated for a girl’ – has dedicated a lifetime to challenging perceptions of what women can achieve.
In the book’s final story, set four months later, a man texts his fourteen-year-old daughter at around 9pm: ‘I hope you are not too disappointed. Progress sometimes happens in fits and starts.’ Elsewhere, Sittenfeld’s liberal, educated characters take time out from their personal dramas to lament Trump’s insistent ascendency. This is a book that, among other things, is in mourning for a lost opportunity.
But although this collection of sharp psychological portraits and middle-aged conundrums presents itself today as an object of grief, it could just as easily have been a work of muted celebration had things turned out differently. This ability to allow multiple interpretations is one of Sittenfeld’s great strengths.