Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

‘You’re awfully opinionated for a girl.’

In this novel, Ms Sittenfeld imagines an alternative life for Hillary Rodham.  A life which did not involve marrying Bill Clinton.  A life in which remaining single provided opportunities that being married to Bill Clinton did not.

Imagine. In 1971, Hillary Rodham’s life is full of potential.  Life magazine has covered her Wellesley commencement speech, she is attending Yale Law School and is involved in the women’s rights movement.  And then she meets Bill Clinton: handsome, charismatic, and already planning his political career.

In real life, Hillary follows Bill back to Arkansas.  In real life, after Bill proposes several times, Hillary eventually accepts.  Hillary Rodham becomes Hillary Clinton.

In this novel, Hillary has doubts and their relationship breaks down.  Their paths cross, over the next four decades, but Hillary follows her own direction.

I have mixed feelings about this novel.  A couple of times I was tempted to stop reading.  I felt uncomfortable reading fiction based on the life of someone still living and still contributing to public life.  I felt uncomfortable reading a first-person Hillary where I could not always discern fact from fiction. I felt like a voyeur, sometimes, observing personal, private moments I should not be privy to.  But I kept reading because I wanted to know where Ms Sittenfeld was heading.  Gradually, I left most of my discomfort behind.  And I finished the novel, wondering about the consequences of the ‘what if’ choices we all make, about the trade-offs involved in any partnership.

Did I enjoy the novel?  Not without some reservations.  But I do admire the way Ms Sittenfeld set about imaging what might have been and the clever way in which she contrasts the different expectations that women still face in public life.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith