Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In his 1976 novel The Alteration, Kingsley Amis imagined a contemporary Britain in which the Protestant Reformation never took place. In The Plot against America (2004), Philip Roth imagined a 1940s America in which Charles Lindbergh beats FDR in the 1940 election and signs peace treaties with Germany and Japan. In her new novel, Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld imagines an equally portentous alternate world: one in which Hillary Rodham never married Bill Clinton – and ended up being elected president in 2016.
Well, it’s not quite correct to say that Sittenfeld imagines it. There’s not really much in the way of imagination in this stunningly vapid, pedestrian piece of work, which plods from incident to incident without a single vivid detail or snappy exchange of dialogue or hint of wit. It’s so flatfooted, so thoroughly uninspired, that one assumes, in the early pages, that Sittenfeld – who is a woman – banged it out prontissimo, Joyce Carol Oates-style, with the cynical objective of cashing in on all the poor hapless women who were so devastated by Hillary’s loss that they’d presumably be desperate to escape into an alternate universe in which Hillary won. But as one reads on, one acquires the distinct, and horrifying, impression that Sittenfeld’s heart is actually in this leaden, lifeless thing, and that escaping into her own sketchily depicted parallel universe is Sittenfeld’s way of consoling herself.
The premise here is simple: If only Hillary had ditched Bill back in Little Rock, she could’ve taken a different route to the 2016 elections – and won! Forget the critics who say that Hillary’s only real credential for being president – and, before that, a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State – was her wedding ring. Sittenfeld’s novel implicitly argues the opposite: that Bill has, all along, been an ethical and professional liability to Hillary; that on her own she’d have been able to be truer to her extraordinarily high moral values, and could have followed an independent path that led to a long-term senatorial career earned entirely on her own merits and, ultimately, to the White House.
Until reading Rodham, I’d never heard of Sittenfeld before. It turns out, however, that she’s published five previous novels with Random House, including American Wife, based loosely on the life of Laura Bush, and Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice. No, I haven’t so much as looked at these books, but the fact that they sound like the worst kind of hacky “women’s fiction” doesn’t mean that they aren’t masterpieces. In fact, Sittenfeld has made the bestseller list, been translated into a couple of dozen languages, and garnered glowing reviews featuring such words as “masterful,” “brilliant,” and “poignant.” How is it, then, that such a highly praised writer has produced a book that reads, in large part, like a rough draft of a Harlequin romance? Here, for instance, are our two Yale Law School geniuses confessing their feelings to each other:
“I love you, Hillary,” he said. “I’m in love with you, and I love you. I can’t believe that you exist.”
“That I exist? You’re the Arkansas Renaissance man and future president.” I looked at him more seriously. “I’m in love with you, Bill, and I love you, too.”
Here’s Hill opening up to Bill about her insecurities:
“…No one like you has ever been interested in me. You’re so much handsomer and more appealing. And I realize I’m not beautiful, and I realize you could easily find someone who is. It doesn’t make sense that someone like you wants to be the boyfriend of someone like me.”
Some time later, here’s Bill reassuring her of his love:
A silence arose between us, filled with the hum of the campus, which was, like that of Wellesley, absurdly beautiful: A nearby dogwood tree filled the air with a sweet spring scent. Bill’s voice was serious when he spoke again. He said, “I really don’t think you understand. All this time, I needed you. I needed you, and I was looking for you, and now I never want to let you go.”
And, still later, after she’s caught him in a sexual indiscretion, there’s this:
….he dropped to his knees. He looked up at me, took both my hands, and said, “The flesh is weak. Lord knows how weak my flesh has been. But, Hillary, my spirit is yours. My soul and my spirit and my heart—they’ll always be yours, no matter what.”
So much for the soap opera. At other moments I thought I was reading Fifty Shades of Gray. For those of you who’ve always wanted to picture Hillary and Bill having sex – well, your ship has finally come in. As for the rest of you, good luck getting these images out of your head:
And then I could feel the nudging of Bill’s erection, it was probably going to happen, then it was definitely going to happen, he was entering me, and I gasped—I gasped both because it felt so incredibly good and because I couldn’t believe I was naked with this man….
…when he was thrusting into me, I had such a strong sense of wanting him to come inside me….When Bill was inside me, sometimes I was mindless with how good it felt, and sometimes I was aware, with a kind of granular precision, of the unlikely sequence of events that had made our lives intersect….
Granular precision? Oh well, never mind. Here’s more:
His body in my arms, pressed against me, was shocking. Looking into his eyes was shocking. That we were literally fused, that his erection was inside me and my legs were wrapped around him, hooked through the backs of his knees—all of this was shocking. It was shocking that we’d found each other and it was shocking how natural yet thrilling having conversations with him was and it was shocking that we were naked, even though we’d never spoken until a few weeks earlier. Falling in love was shocking, shocking, utterly shocking.
The key word, if you missed it, is “shocking.”
After Bill exits Hillary’s life, there’s no more throbbing and pulsating, although decades later we hear about Hillary’s “first postmenopause sex” (“I was delighted to discover I still had the knack, as long as there was lubricant nearby”) and her “ritual predebate diarrhea.”
A word about Sittenfeld’s prose. Workmanlike at best, at worst it’s just plain dreadful. Here’s Hillary on Bill: “What was unfolding between us felt continuously replenishable, regenerative.” Hillary on Anita Hill: “In the sense that Clarence Thomas was confirmed, she didn’t prevail.” Hillary contemplating a 2012 presidential race: “At that point, I would be sixty-four years old, and, assuming my own senatorial reelections, I’d have held office for twenty years.” And here’s Hillary on the presidential campaign trail, wondering if she’s slipped up while chatting with journalists: “Had I pronounced the Cuban names displeasingly to them?”
Don’t look to Rodham for verisimilitude. At no point does anything in this book feel authentic. Sittenfeld sets scenes in law schools and on election campaigns, but doesn’t come close to capturing the atmosphere of either. Her supporting cast contains several smart women who feel disappointed because they settled for marriage rather than pursuing careers; but they’re all interchangeable cardboard cutouts. (Michelle Obama doesn’t actually appear, but Hillary mentions her in passing: “like everyone else, I thought she was terrific.”)
Meanwhile the book’s heterosexual men, real or fictional, are all jerks, fools, bullies, weaklings, sleazebags, and/or sexual predators. Among them is Donald Trump, who, in Sittenfeld’s only attempt at humor, is portrayed as (of course) a clown. Clarence Thomas isn’t a character, but Sittenfeld manages to smear him anyway (and in a particularly shabby way). She even allows one of her characters to get in a dig at Obama: “Those of us from Chicago know Barack isn’t as pure as we all pretend.” Throughout, we’re invited to agree with a gay male aide of Hillary’s who says: “Men are such assholes.” The one exception to this rule in the whole book is the rich, doting, and utterly one-dimensional lapdog with whom President Rodham finally finds happiness.
Anyway, back to Sittenfeld’s story (the word “plot” doesn’t apply here). In 1992, Hillary is elected to the Senate from Illinois and Bill loses the race for President. He leaves politics, becomes a tech billionaire in Silicon Valley, and decides to make another try for the White House in 2016 – only to find himself up against Hillary, who also tosses her hat in the ring. As this conflict takes shape, the reader, who’s been slogging through this mind-numbing morass for over 200 pages, thinks: Aha! Finally the big showdown. Yippee! So this is what Sittenfeld has been preparing us for. The potential for drama increases when Hillary finds out that Bill has been taking part in drug-fueled orgies and that a woman whom he raped decades ago is prepared to talk.
But guess what? Nothing happens. Nada! Just when we’re expecting the big dramatic climax, Hillary informs us, suddenly, bluntly, that she won the Democratic nomination and general election; and next thing you know she’s winding things up, telling us how content she is with her life as commander-in-chief and how proud she is “of the legislation my administration has gotten passed without Republican support: reversing the Hyde Amendment to allow poor women access to abortions through Medicaid; creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; exceeding the climate-change commitments in the Paris Agreement; and requiring background checks on all gun sales.”
We’re plainly meant to melt into tears at the thought of what we missed by not getting a President Hillary. For my part, I sat there stunned at this staggeringly lame excuse for a payoff. What kind of fiction writing is this? You’d never know that Sittenfeld had ever read a novel, let alone written several of them to widespread acclaim.
But hey, that’s just me. If your heart was broken when Hillary Clinton lost to Trump, and the pain hasn’t healed even after multiple readings of her various memoirs and binge viewings of the four-part Netflix documentary Hillary, here’s the book for you. Pour yourself a glass of chardonnay and enjoy.