Books

Curtis Sittenfeld’s New Book Imagines if Hillary Never Married Bill

Rodham isn’t as satisfying as her novel about Laura Bush, but together, they’re both richer.

Photo of young Bill and Hillary Clinton, with Bill's face crossed out
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wellesley College/Sygma via Getty Images.

“Do you feel frustrated that you’ve been in public life for 30 years yet people feel that they don’t know who you are, that you seem inauthentic?” Nanette Burstein asks her subject at the beginning of her four-part documentary series Hillary, now streaming on Hulu. If the documentary has a thesis, it’s that the protective reflexes that Hillary Clinton developed to survive the onslaught of sexist resistance that met her at every turn in her life ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, sabotaged her two presidential campaigns. From the day she took the LSAT in a room full of men—one of whom apparently told her that if she got “his” spot in law school and he ended up going to Vietnam and getting killed, she’d be responsible—to the guy who waved an “Iron My Shirt” sign at one of her political rallies, Clinton learned that, in her words, “You’d get no points for being emotional. You’d get no points for trying to defend yourself. You just put your head down, you worked hard, you got to where you were going despite whatever obstacles were put up.” When Donald Trump infamously loomed behind Clinton during a 2016 presidential debate, she contemplated turning around and calling him on it, but decided not to confront her rival, because, her former communications director puts it, the headlines would just be “Clinton Rattled.”

Yet surely the origin of Clinton’s perceived inaccessibility lies in her marriage. Burstein’s series offers footage of both Hillary and Bill speaking with unprecedented frankness about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but Hillary’s decision to stay with her husband, despite his long history of infidelities, remains unarticulated. Possibly, it can’t be articulated. To her critics, Hillary’s seemingly docile acceptance of Bill Clinton’s cheating clashed with the image of her as a ballbusting career woman who disdained the traditional, domestic sphere of a first lady. It didn’t add up. Either she felt too much (like any woman) and that made her weak, or she felt too little, allowing an inhuman ambition to supersede the emotions of a normal wife. But how could an abject slave to love become a highly paid corporate lawyer who refused to bake cookies, and why would a creature of pure ambition bother to marry a man who sidetracked her career to Arkansas? Hillary Clinton was like a computer program that, when fed into the stereotype-driven psyche of the popular imagination, broke the machine.

At the same time, for some, her dilemma hit a little too close to home. In the documentary, longtime Clinton aide Cheryl Mills recalls meeting with married women voters—apparently the same demographic that failed to support her as expected at the polls—who began by describing their instinctive dislike for Clinton, then segued into criticizing her for sticking with her cheating spouse, and then finally admitted, one by one, that they’d made the same concession themselves. It’s supposed to be a good thing when voters see themselves in a candidate, but what if what they recognize is the part of themselves they most despise?

So imagine that Hillary had had the sense not to marry Bill in the first place. That’s the premise of Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, Rodham. This is Sittenfeld’s second novel about a first lady, the previous being 2008’s American Wife, closely based on the life of Laura Bush. Unlike American Wife, Rodham has a strong whiff of longing about it, a resemblance to the category of fan fiction known as RPF, or real-person fiction, in which fans write fictional stories about actual celebrities. But instead of concocting romantic relationships between, say, the members of a boy band, Sittenfeld’s RPF fantasizes about the death of a passionate romance. Her Hillary Rodham makes it as far as Fayetteville, Arkansas, with Bill Clinton, dazzled by the joy of finally finding a man who “adored me while understanding not only who I was but who I wished to be.” Then, at a crucial point, after he’s proposed to her and been turned down (just as the real Bill proposed to the real Hillary twice before she accepted), she’s approached by a woman who claims Bill “forced himself” on her a few years earlier. Bill denies this charge, but then adds in a rare moment of selfless honesty, “You shouldn’t marry me. You should leave. I’ll drag you down.” And she listens to him.

Here’s where Rodham takes off, powered by the reader’s curiosity about how both of these lives will unfold without each other. “Everything is Sliding Doors,” a friend recently said (well, texted) to me, referring to the 1998 romantic comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow that splits into two timelines, one in which Paltrow’s character catches a train in the London Tube and one in which she doesn’t. If not for 80,000 votes in a handful of states, or for James Comey’s “October surprise” announcement that the FBI was reopening inquiries into Clinton’s emails, or for the horny shenanigans of Anthony Weiner that led to that reopening, we might be living in a very different America right now.

Yet while some twists of fate feel both arbitrary and epochal, other forces in the world, like sexism, seem tenaciously entrenched. In Rodham, Bill Clinton marries another, more conventionally feminine woman and becomes governor of Arkansas. When a cabaret singer (Sittenfeld stops short of naming her Gennifer Flowers) exposes the longtime affair she’s had with him, Clinton and his wife agree to an interview on 60 Minutes. In our world, Hillary’s forceful participation in that interview saved Bill’s career; in Sittenfeld’s novel, his girlier wife crumbles on the air, and so do his political prospects. Sittenfeld’s Bill Clinton decamps to Silicon Valley, where he becomes a tech mogul, the glad-handing face of a web services company, and very, very rich. Then he gets interested in politics again.

Hillary Rodham never marries, becomes a law professor, then a senator, then the first female candidate to run for president on a major party ticket in 2016. In the absence of a Clinton candidacy, George H.W. Bush is elected to a second term in 1992, followed by a one-term Jerry Brown presidency and two terms of John McCain. Several major historical events, most notably 9/11 and the Iraq war, never occur, leaving Sittenfeld’s Hillary untainted by a Senate vote supporting the latter. She dirties her hands a bit—running against Carol Moseley Braun in a Senate primary and accepting the endorsement of Donald Trump—but the character Sittenfeld makes of this alternate Hillary remains essentially static: cautious, mildly humorous, committed to public service, but no firebrand. Above all, she is diligent, a grind. The weakness of Rodham is this lack of any significant transformation. Unlike Alice Blackwell, the narrator of American Wife, Hillary Rodham doesn’t come to the gradual realization that she has thrown away her life on a man she can no longer respect and whose values she doesn’t share. Sittenfeld’s Hillary eventually grasps how perilous her passion for Bill Clinton was, but that’s a revelation without much of a price. She puts her head down, works hard, and … well, I won’t spoil it for you.

The two novels together, however, become more than the sum of their parts. They serve as bookends for a certain kind of late 20th century womanhood: white, middle-class, educated, torn, impossible. Alice Blackwell has humbler dreams than Hillary Rodham, whose promise seems so evident to her peers that when she leaves a law school party with Bill, one of their Yale classmates shouts, “Try not to actually fall in love, because I don’t think it’s legal for the president of the United States to be married to the Supreme Court chief justice.” (In the documentary series, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist Paul Begala describes Hillary as “the most impressive person I have ever met.”) No one expects much from Alice, but Hillary carries the aspirations of a generation of her female peers on her shoulders. When she first follows Bill to Arkansas, her friends are crestfallen, and they rejoice when she comes back.

Each of these women, married and single, feels as if part of herself is being smothered: For Alice, it’s her social conscience, and for Hillary, it’s her romantic and sexual desires. While Alice surreptitiously donates small amounts of her husband’s money to an inner-city food pantry, Hillary Rodham believes that she must sacrifice love in order to be treated as an equal by a man: “The pleasure you take in each other’s company will be obvious,” she tells herself, “but, crucially, while this pleasure will make you feel as if you’re in love with him, it will not make him feel as if he’s in love with you. He might remark on how much he likes talking to you, but there will be girls he wants to kiss, and you will not be one of them.”

Both Alice Blackwell and this fictional Hillary have a slightly stuffy rectitude that Sittenfeld considers to be quintessentially Midwestern. Alice cringes at the fratty, profane hijinks of her husband’s wealthy clan, while Hillary insists that Bill not pass along a bribe during his first Arkansas congressional campaign, even though he regards it as standard operating procedure and blames the loss of that election on her excessive probity. Each woman will, in the heat of a quarrel, accuse her man of being a “spoiled” child. They are both relegated to the role of killjoy, mom surrogate, bitch, but privately so. Sittenfeld’s Hillary hasn’t been made to stand, in the imaginations of countless resentful and insecure men, for every unwelcome change in women’s roles over the past 50 years. She is an admirable woman, but a bit boring, her interior life free of the kind of conflicts that make for a fascinating heroine, and there’s something melancholy in that.

This character does not, however, make our Hillary more fathomable. Watching Burstein’s documentary doesn’t either, but it does provide a context for the enigma. Whatever her faults—and, being human, she has a few—Hillary Clinton has been subjected to an extraordinary and unrelenting amount of scrutiny, much of it sheer projection, since she became the first lady of Arkansas in the late 1970s. (As Hillary documents, her refusal to change her last name after her marriage was blamed for her husband’s failed reelection campaign in 1980. After she took Bill’s last name, he won the 1982 gubernatorial election.) She is like someone who has lived in outer space or on the ocean floor for decades, a survivor of conditions most of us could not endure or even really imagine, and inevitably she has been shaped by them. How could we hope to truly know such a person, or more to the point, how can we go on kidding ourselves that this is her fault?

Rodham

By Curtis Sittenfeld. Random House.