What if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton? Could she have been more successful? And what would have become of Bill?
In her fictionalized rewrite of history, Curtis Sittenfeld creates her own version of lives and politics in Rodham. While the author clearly admires Bill Clinton’s intelligence and charisma, she finds his philandering unacceptable, sometimes bordering on criminal. Hillary, on the other hand, while lacking in essential glad-handing and manipulation skills helpful to aspiring candidates, comes across as the true, clear-eyed, brilliant leader, if only someone would recognize her talents. In Sittenfeld’s version, Hillary does not excuse or condone Bill’s sexual predatoriness, and breaks off their engagement to escape back to a respectable career as a law professor – for a while, anyway.
Although the details can seem pedantic and slow moving, they follow the author’s tangential history, with enough references to actual happenings to make the reader nostalgic. The actions and the quotes may be real but they are attributed to different players, depending on how well they serve the storyline. At times, the ingredients get mixed up, and you may find yourself googling to check the facts, for example to reaffirm Carol Moseley Braun was indeed the first Black woman Senator, but Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, even Joe Biden stand out clearly.
Sittenfeld changes just enough history to make it palatable to those who still cringe at the current state of American politics, and offers her own surprising slate of American Presidents from 1988 to 2012, ending with the election in 2016. She does tell you who wins in 2016, but how may be more surprising. No spoilers here.
I remember colleagues commenting on the scandal of Monica and the blue dress before Clinton was impeached. Some said his political prowess cancelled out anything he did personally; other countries would be more accepting of dalliances as long as he was doing a good job. But others said character was integral in fostering trust in a leader, and without trust, a leader was ineffective. Sittenfeld would agree with the latter.
I wondered how lives and careers would have changed if history had followed Sittenfeld’s progression. Many may owe their careers to the real Hillary, who did not leave, and helped her husband get elected President. In the book, one of the characters comments:
“…there are other lives out there we could have led, if circumstances were only sightly different…”
Don’t we all wonder at times what if – what if you had taken that job on the West Coast, what if you had attended a different school, what if you had dated another person…there are many alternate lives you can imagine some days. Sittenfeld’s imagined alternative history does not have the page turning expectations of a thriller, but it is fun, and maybe a little enlightening.