Antonio Arch's review of Rodham
5/5: There are surprisingly few powerful women in recorded history whose names have endured. Of her peers, few have…
There are surprisingly few powerful women in recorded history whose names have endured. Of her peers, few have suffered from such scrutiny, been as discussed or so often maligned as has Hillary Rodham Clinton. While What Happened, Clinton’s memoir of her campaign and loss documents much of that scrutiny, the epigraph for Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham could very well read What Might Have Happened.
Alternative history is roughly defined as a sub-genre of speculative fiction in which the story is one of alternatives, possibilities, and retells events other than as they happened historically. It’s also more commonly employed than you might think. The Sliding Doors effect is the idea that a slight alteration in an intended plan can have an enormous repercussion on outcomes. The concept comes from the 1998 Peter Howitt film of the same name in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays the same role twice. There are two Helens in much the same way that there are two Hillaries discussed below. Hillary Clinton is the living politician and current wife of President Bill Clinton. Hillary Rodham is the character based on Mrs Clinton but created by Curtis Sittenfeld and Rodham’s protagonist.
Alternative historical fiction can be as useful as it is enjoyable. It can allow the writer and reader to rethink history, allowing the players to be interpreted just a little differently. Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood gave Peg Entwistle the close-up and Rock Hudson the happy ending that history denied them, and Rodham might answer some lingering questions about Hillary Clinton. Did she need Bill as much as he has relied on her? Was theirs a marriage of love or rather a series of transactions and favours, sealed with handshakes? Why did she not leave Bill like the feminist she claimed to be? Might walking out of her marriage and the White House have improved public opinion of her? Has the decision to stay in her marriage been a calculated move, designed to appeal to conservative voters who might not support either Clinton if they were to divorce? Has Hillary stood by Bill all these years to satisfy her agenda and political ambitions? Would she be a public figure today without her marriage? Hillary Rodham’s story is not altogether unfamiliar. This Hillary is also drawn to the tall, charismatic Rhodes Scholar whose hair resembles a lion’s mane, at first sight. By this first meeting, Rodham has set and established a frank, observational tone and style as if this is a private journal. It manages to achieve what decades of careful PR has not done for Hillary Clinton by making the reader care deeply. The Hillary Clinton of history made her debut while on the defensive. In a 1992 television interview, she joined her candidate husband on 60 minutes to defend him against allegations of an extramarital affair. That interview marked her debut to much of the voting public as an outspoken, assertive and unforgettable contender. She invoked the lyrics of a Tammy Wynette song and many of the adjectives used then and now are unflattering only when used to describe a woman. Biographers and historians agree that the interview salvaged her husband’s campaign, saved his candidacy but also affected the public’s perception of her for the rest of her professional life. An American first lady with her own opinions, career, finances and ideas suddenly became more a liability than an asset. What if she hadn’t spent that energy defending her husband? Hillary Rodham, unburdened by the complications of marriage, thrives in that same decade in the novel. She plots a course and finds her way, without any help.
In 1998 when new allegations of sexual allegations surfaced against her husband, Hillary Clinton mounted an aggressive defence against the right-wing conspiracists responsible, causing her great embarrassment and humiliation when President Clinton was forced to admit his affair and perjury. In an alternate reality, Hillary Rodham is arguably reaching her personal and professional potential.
Sittenfield imagines Hillary’s inner emotional life in a light that it is just plausible and credible enough to feel real. It also allows for reflection on Hillary Clinton’s detractors’ accusations that she would be nothing without Bill. Rodham’s appeal is that it employs a persona who we all claim to know, sitting just on the other side of the looking glass as her world and narrative unfold, ever so slightly different from where we have all scrutinised her. The alternate timeline paints a scenario in broad strokes as it might have looked had life taken a different course, realistic enough that at times the reader might briefly think that this constructed reality might have had a chance as historical fact. It is an immersive reading experience that shows Curtis Sittenfeld's gifts for both research and writing the alternative; she is no stranger to the White House, presidential marriages or the unfolding development of engaging characters. Her Hillary Rodham possesses sensitive respect for the woman who inspired her, who almost became America’s forty-fifth president and was arguably the driving force behind its forty-second.