Hillary Clinton Meets Sex and the City in Rodham
Warning: This Post is Strange and Full of Spoilers
If you’re in the market for erotic Bill/Hillary Clinton fanfiction, I have great news: Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, a sympathetic portrait of the life and times of Hillary Rodham (just not the one you know), is out now.
The Hillary You (Don’t) Know
Rodham aims to show readers what Hillary Rodham would have become if she was never weighed down by Bill Clinton’s political ambition (or his infidelities), and was instead able to forge her own path in politics, life, and love. It paints her as the ultimate everywoman—smart, capable, and just awkward enough to warrant her own HBO dramedy.
The book is divided into parts focusing on different periods of Hillary’s life: her college years, her time as a law professor, and her 2016 presidential campaign. In Part One of Rodham, Hillary does meet, date, and fall in love with Bill Clinton, but their relationship is over by the time Part Two begins (after 146 merciless pages).
The Hillary You (Don’t Really Care To) Know
The problem with Sittenfeld’s story is that her imagined alternate life for Hillary is never all that interesting. Hillary has problems—she’s unintentionally racist, accused of sexual harassment for allowing a staffer to shave her legs, debates having an affair with a married colleague—but the incidents Sittenfeld dreams up are always presented in a way that makes it clear you should not judge Hillary Rodham too harshly; after all, she’s doing her best.
Unfortunately, all this lukewarm approach does is make Hillary boring. It’s outlandish and uninteresting to have a character without any Machiavellian tendencies at the center of a story that is, at its core, about a woman’s journey to the presidency.
Even worse, Sittenfeld shoots her novel in the foot by making its most interesting character the Comeback Kid himself, Bill Clinton. He’s undoubtedly the villain of the story, an overbearing sexual predator, but even when he’s operating on the periphery, he’s still Rodham’s weirdest and most interesting actor.
While Hillary is playing out her rejected Sex and the City arc, Bill Clinton is losing the 1992 election and becoming a billionaire tech mogul who eventually challenges Hillary for the 2016 Democratic nomination.
Sex, Sax, and Snacks
Beyond the issues with characterization, Sittenfeld’s preoccupation with Bill and Hillary’s sexual escapades is distracting at the best of times, laughable at the worst.
Lines like, “…I found myself lying underneath him, his erection inside me and his scrotum bumping against the lowest part of my bottom…” will make you cringe, and Bill Clinton saying things like, “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this during the women’s movement, but you have great tits,” will make you yearn for illiteracy.
In addition to sex, the leonine young Bill Clinton that Hillary meets has three other great loves: snacks, saxophones, and Arkansas. He’s constantly eating—Sittenfeld doesn’t want her readers to forget that Bill Clinton was a big guy in the 1970s—and, at one point, he plays the saxophone for Hillary while completely nude. He is also constantly telling people how great Arkansas is and how he’s going to kickstart his political career there after he graduates.
Other characters regard him as either charming or insufferable, and he dominates social interactions because the size of his personality won’t allow for anything else. (To be completely fair to Sittenfeld, this does all add up to a fairly accurate portrayal of Bill Clinton.)
Before long, however, readers are alerted to the fact that Bill Clinton may not be a paragon of virtue (shocking, I know). Over the course of Part 1, Bill Clinton cheats on Hillary, is outed as a sex addict, wants to break campaign finance laws (Hillary’s staunch morality stops him), and is accused of rape. Even after all of this, Hillary still agrees to marry Bill—the only reason she doesn’t is because he wakes her in the middle of the night and cautions her not to go through with it.
Dream a Little Dream (of Hillary)
As strange as Part 1 of Rodham is, it’s also the only part of the book that works. Its flaws are legion, but they make it interesting. Reading about Bill Clinton’s erection—and you read about it many times—is not particularly thrilling, but it’s a little like watching a train wreck: you just can’t look away.
When Sittenfeld moves on to the other, less Bill-centric segments of Hillary’s imaginary life, the narrative’s weirdness is less engaging, more befuddling.
As the story loses its steam, it becomes even more transparent (if that’s possible) that the novel is just a cathartic fever dream for Sittenfeld, her way of coping with Hillary’s loss in the 2016 election. Because, as is blindingly obvious from the start, the entire point of the book is to imagine a world in which Hillary could have won in 2016. It’s a world in which Donald Trump still exists, but as a Hillary supporter, not her opponent. He even gives the same speech he gave when he announced his candidacy in the real world—the “they’re not sending their best” speech—but in support of Hillary Rodham’s campaign. That is a thing that really, truly happens in Rodham.
The 2016 election itself isn’t even that important—the climax of the book focuses on the Democratic primaries where Hillary has to face off against (and I want to be sure I’m making this abundantly clear) billionaire tech mogul Bill Clinton. After that, the results of the actual election are treated as a foregone conclusion.
I could write another 1000 words on Rodham, really digging into the strange decisions Sittenfeld makes without any justification (she randomly gives John McCain two terms as president!), but life is short and I have a dog to walk. The book is meant to beatify Hillary Rodham Clinton—not the person, but the idea of her—and it’s ultimately an unsuccessful and bizarre endeavor.
I didn’t think Rodham was particularly good, but there were times when I couldn’t help but laugh at the insanity of it all. So, my final verdict on this novel is going to be Read At Your Own Risk. Preferably while intoxicated, and with friends close to hand so you can offload the madness onto someone else.