I have been on a great summer reading kick (just started book #23 for the year) and one of my absolute favorites this month was Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. Sittenfeld is also the author of Prep, American Wife, The Man of My Dreams, Eligible, You Think It, I'll Say It and Sisterland. I read Sisterland back in August 2013 and loved it. Here is my original review.
Rodham re-imagines the course of Hillary Rodham's life if she had never married Bill Clinton.
Intrigued? You should be.
Sittenfeld architects a path for Hillary that is rooted in truth - about her personality, about Bill's, other prominent political figures, and cultural zeitgeist moments over the decades of her career.
The story begins with Hillary's childhood, including her first leadership role in middle school. She quickly discovers she is not like other girls. She wants to take charge (and the boys don't like that).
Fast forward to her famous speech at Wellesley College's commencement, thrusting her into the public eye for the first time. Next, she heads to New Haven, CT for law school at Yale, where she meets Bill. This section of the book was one of my favorites - their initial, whirlwind romance. Bill saw Hillary for who she really was and celebrated her. He made her feel accepted and desired.
One summer, Hillary is headed to Berkeley, CA for an internship and Bill had planned to work on a campaign. He decides to ditch his gig and go with her to California. At first, their time their together is complete bliss. In their final week, Hillary discovers Bill cheating on her - kissing her boss' daughter right outside their apartment building. It's the first fracture in their relationship.
As they prepared to leave California and drive back to Connecticut, she muses, "Walking through the empty rooms for the first time, I felt older than I'd ben when Bill and I had departed from New Haven in May. A certain giddiness between us had been punctured, in part, of course, by his infidelity, but that wasn't the only reason. Having lived under the same roof for three months, shared a bed, driven across the country and back, we knew each other in a far deeper way. We weren't bound only by conversations and chemistry, which can be at once seductive and misleading or at least incomplete. We now knew each other's extended habits and moods, knew each other awake and asleep, not as a novelty but as a daily norm; the way he smelled when he woke up in the morning wasn't a bad smell - I liked it - but it also wasn't the public version of him. We knew each other's animal selves. Berkeley had been practice, a probation from which our survival as a couple hadn't been guaranteed. The return to New Haven felt like the beginning of our lives together."
Hillary and Bill continue to live together back in New Haven and eventually move to Arkansas. As the story goes in real life, Bill proposed to Hillary many times before she accepted. In the book, fictional Hillary talks about the moment she knew he was "the one."
She plans, "As I looked at the calendar grid for May 1975, I understood what a jolt that I was going retracing my past in order to arrive at my future and that when I returned to Fayetteville, I would tell Bill I was ready to marry him. And once I told him, I thought, we wouldn't wait long. What would the point be? We didn't want a fancy ceremony; we were ready to get on with the rest of our lives. I thought of how happy he'd look - I knew just the expression he'd make, the slight smile broadening into a huge smile, that light and intelligence that was always in his eyes trained on me - and sitting there in my office, I teared up. Finally, enough time had passed, enough testing of the waters. Finally, I was sure."
That feeling of hope and happiness didn't last long. In Sittenfeld's version of events, cheating rumors continue to fly and eventually, more serious allegations of assault. Hillary finds herself unable to ignore this constant hum of doubt and ends things with Bill. She moves back to her hometown of Chicago and goes on to teach law and eventually become a senator.
As I was reading, I kept wondering, will she cross paths with Bill again? How? When?
On page 159, I got my answer. Bill leaves a voicemail for Hillary and she says, "It was shockingly strange to hear Bill's voice. Id' neither seen him in person nor spoken to him for sixteen years. In the days and weeks after I'd left Fayetteville in June 1975, we'd talked on the phone a few times, tortured conversations that ended with no more clarity than they'd started with, and we'd exchanged several letters that were similar in their pain and earnestness. But within a few months, the contact had stopped; I'd begun a reply to his most recent letter, realized I wasn't conveying anything I hadn't already conveyed, and never finished it. The only time I'd laid eyes on him was on television, when he'd delivered the keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta, a role he'd been invited to fill because he was then in his fourth term as governor of Arkansas. I'd thought he'd spoken well, though for too long, and apparently I hadn't been alone because near the end of the speech, when he 'd said, 'In closing . . .' applause had broken out in the convention center. Three years later, Bill was still governor, meaning that in his phone message, he presumably was instructing me on how to reach him at th governor's mansion in Little Rock."
Bill and Hillary begin to orbit around each other again, as they both consider running for president. I don't want to say more about the plot because it's so freaking good and you need to read it yourself.
I will say, Sittenfeld found a way to work in Donald Trump and it was highly amusing. In the book, Trump meets Hillary as she is considering another run for president. He says to her, "Every day, people beg me to run for president. I think about it seriously, very seriously. I'd be the greatest president this country has ever seen. But do I want to? I don't think I do." If only you had stayed at Trump Tower!
One moment that really stuck out to me was a conversation Hillary has with her mother. Hillary is asking if her mom is disappointed in her for not getting married or having children. Her mother replies, "If you wanted children, it's a shame you didn't get to have them. But your life is bigger than mine ever was, being a law professor and your Election Day work and your friends all over the country. If you go to Washington, you can be a voice for all the people who don't have one. I don't wish anything about you was different." I love that message from fictional Mama Rodham.
I will not give away the ending of this book, but I will say, you have to read it. It's a story of perseverance and triumph. It feels like the ending we should have been given in 2016.
In the acknowledgements section at the very end of the book, Sittenfeld lists all the memoirs she read to prepare to write this novel. In case you are interested, they include:
- Living History and What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
- My Life by Bill Clinton
- Chasing Hillary: On the Trail of the First Woman President Who Wasn't by Amy Chozick
- A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Carl Bernstein
- Strange Injustice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson
- Behind the Smile: A Story of Carol Mosley Braun's Historic Senate Campaign by Jeannie Morris
- Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister
- Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boy's Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang
- Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to Women Who Will Run the World by Jennifer Palmieri
- Plenty Ladylike: A Memoir by Claire McCaskill
- Off the Sidelines: Speak Up, Be Fearless, and Change Your World by Kristen Gillibrand
- The Truths We Hold: An American Journey by Kamala Harris
- The Senator Next Door: A Memoir from the Heartland by Amy Klobuchar
- This Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class by Elizabeth Warren
I will definitely be ordering a few of these. If you have read any of them and have recommendations, please share!
*Image courtesy of Minneapolis / St. Paul Magazine.