Reliving the events of the 2016 election holds little appeal four years after the fact. Donald Trump presidency’s felt unfathomable then, and now the abysmal decision-making of his administration is the nation’s shared burden. Fantasizing about what might’ve been is just depressing. But Hillary Clinton’s most ardent fans have probably dreamed of the scenarios laid out in Curtis Sittenfeld’s seventh novel, Rodham, which casts the former Secretary of State as the leading lady in a shoddy bonkbuster, and Bill, the cad turned villain who captured her heart, but got away. The plot that Sittenfeld has created for Rodham hinges on a simple question: what if Hillary Clinton rejected Bill’s marriage proposal and struck out on her own?
Thanks to Sittenfeld, there are now over 200 pages of speculative fiction that attempts to inject some humanity and nuance into the public understanding of Hillary. This foray into highbrow fanfic is not Sittenfeld’s first time at this very specific rodeo; her 2008 novel, American Wife, is a fictionalized account of Laura Bush’s life, marrying into a notable Republican family while remaining a “quiet, secret Democrat.” Speaking to NPR’s Terri Gross in 2008, Sittenfeld defended herself against any claims from conservatives that the book was a “smear job” on Laura Bush, arguing that fiction allows for artistic license. “The point of a novel, the gift of a novel is to go really deeply inside people’s lives and inside their personal experiences,” she told Gross. “I had to create a plot, because that’s what you do when you write fiction.” Under that rubric, Rodham succeeds, even though I was bogged down by the unshakeable feeling that I was reading the scribblings of a Hillary super-fan who felt it necessary to add some sex appeal to Clinton’s early life.
Sittenfeld’s Clinton appears fully formed at her Wellesley College commencement speech and then jumps immediately into her relationship with Bill, to whom she refers multiple times as a “lion.” Their initial attraction is magnetic, and plays on Hillary’s desire to feel wanted by a man as charismatic and handsome as Bill. The effect that Bill had on Hillary’s life is undoubtedly profound. He’s portrayed as her intellectual equal and a sparring partner that recognizes her for her intellect as well as her body and its pleasures—the latter of which is rendered in rapturous, erotic detail.
“Your outsides are attractive all by themselves. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this during the women’s movement, but you have great tits. And your little waist, and your nice soft bum, and your delicious honey pot...”
I joined Bill in bed, and when I was lying on my back naked and he was lying on top of me naked, he looked at me and smiled. He said, “Hillary, I really enjoy discussing theology with you. I also enjoy doing lots of other things with you,” and then he plunged inside me.
Sittenfeld’s interpretation of Bill and Hillary’s relationship is that Hillary stayed with Bill in the early years because she simply didn’t have the self-confidence to believe that she deserved anything better than a philandering cad from Arkansas with a sex addiction so extreme that, in a particularly arresting scene that I wish I had never read, Bill begs to finger her while he drives:
We were on the highway, not close to other cars or trucks, and I reached up to my hips, hooked my thumbs into the waistband of my underwear, and pulled them to my ankles, above my sandals, without taking them off.
“Please don’t get pulled over,” I said, and after that I really couldn’t speak. I was writhing against his fingers. I lasted about two minutes, and then I was saying as quietly as I could, “Oh, baby. Bill. Bill. Baby, I love you so much.” He stopped moving his fingers and just cupped me, and I whimpered incoherently.
He was alternating between watching the road and turning his head to watch me, smiling, and he said, “I love you so much. I really do. And also—” He lifted his hand off me and gestured toward his own lap, where he clearly had an erection.
Though the American public has spent more than enough time contemplating Bill Clinton’s penis, Sittenfeld forces readers to contend with the specter of his unyielding erection, which looms over the first half of the book. It’s a necessary setup for his first transgression: making out with Hillary’s boss’s daughter near their shared apartment in Berkeley.
This, of course, is the first of many small but significant missteps for Bill Clinton, an accused sexual harasser and alleged rapist, as the ultimate villain: a charismatic, handsome, and treacherous horn dog whose inability to keep it in his pants is ultimately his downfall. Without Bill, though, Hillary is finally able to thrive, and once the reader moves past the nightmarish erotica presented in the first half, Hillary’s life begins anew.
Bill’s political career stalls out after a disastrous 60 Minutes appearance addressing rumors of sexual harassment, in which his wife, Sarah Grace, tremulous and scared, bursts into tears on live television. As Hillary’s star climbs, his political career fizzles out; he leaves politics for Silicon Valley and re-enters the political scene when Hillary is making her third bid for president. The love lost between Hillary and Bill is the sun around which Sittenfeld’s story orbits; their paths cross as both their public profiles rise.
Hillary runs for the Senate against Carole Moseley Braun and her one black friend, Gwen Greenberger from New Haven, implies that maybe Hillary should sit this one out. “Just to be clear, this isn’t about race,” she says to Gwen, seemingly incapable of understanding how it could be anything other than dogged Midwestern pragmatism. Clinton is simply, in her estimation and that of the book, the best woman for the job. Defeating Moseley Braun and taking the seat in the Senate is what propels her to her career in politics. This specific narrative arc is a bit strange, considering Moseley Braun’s place in history as the first black woman to become a senator in 1992, running in a historic campaign against incumbent Alan Dixon, who voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. In real life, Dixon’s actions spurred Moseley Braun to run for office, but in the book, Hillary sees an opportunity that she would be remiss not to take. “The momentum following the Anita Hill stuff—if Carol isn’t going to capitalize on it, someone else should,” she says.
Revealing what happens at the end of this book would be a disservice to those willing to sit through 100 pages of bad sex, but the ending is predictable enough that it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out where Hillary eventually ends up.
Unfortunately, though, the novel fails to address any real-life factors that might have played into Hillary’s eventual defeat, instead placing an enormous amount of importance on her relationship with Bill and how her steadfast dedication to her marriage was, in Sittenfeld’s eyes, a mistake. There’s no doubt that systemic sexism and misogyny played a part in Hillary’s unsuccessful bid at the presidency in 2016, but Rodham ignores the opportunity to look at anything other than her likability as a culprit. It’s a strange fantasy given the prominent role Bill played in the real-life Hillary’s presidential campaign in 2016, stumping for his wife on the campaign trail, banking on the illusion that his own likability would somehow bolster hers. The realities of Hillary and Bill’s marriage provided valuable fodder for Trump, who used Bill’s long history as an alleged sexual predator against Hillary. This, in turn, dredged up Hillary’s repeated efforts throughout her past to discredit the women that accused her husband of sexual assault, harassment, and rape.
Sittenfeld’s vision of Hillary is a woman whose own ambitions trump her desires, and reads as gently critical of the real-life woman’s choice to stay with her husband or to have even married him at all. In Rodham, both Hillary and her husband are sandwiched into the roles of ill-starred lead characters in a romance. Understanding that this is fiction doesn’t make the plot or the contents of the book any easier to swallow; there’s something unseemly about the amount of scrutiny this book invites into the real-life Hillary’s emotions. The fictional Hillary of Rodham spends the majority of her political career climbing the ladder towards a rather clichéd albeit expected denouement, but the love she once had for Bill never quite leaves. The heaviest lift of all, though, is the expectation that the reader can separate fact from fiction, and by doing so, read this book for what it is supposed to be: a weak rallying cry for Hillary devotees who, four years later, still hold out hope for her ascendancy.