Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

I will preface this review by saying that I very much admire Curtis Sittenfeld’s work… But Rodham was not the book for me.

In summary, the novel is a ‘sliding doors’ look at Hillary Clinton’s life, and what might have happened had she not married Bill, and instead ‘remained’ Hillary Rodham. Sittenfeld gives Hillary a career as a law professor and a successful life in politics, but these things come at a cost – she has no family of her own, and few intimate relationships.

The story exposes the double-standards between male and female politicians, imposed by the public, the media, and society in general.

…complaints about sexism were perceived as sour grapes. Proof was elusive, situations subject to interpretation.

Personality traits acceptable in men are not so in women (for example, being ambitious, confident or ‘outspoken’).

In my youth, I had respected my father’s intelligence, not recognizing how much sharper my mother’s was because hers was concealed by being pleasant and female.

Commentary on appearance and social conduct is standard for women, whereas men have greater freedom.

Sometimes I think I’ve made so few mistakes that the public can remember all of them, in contrast to certain male politicians whose multitude of gaffes and transgressions gets jumbled in the collective imagination, either negated by one another or forgotten in the onslaught. The less you screw up, the more clearly the public keeps track of each error.

Given the obvious point being made about double-standards, I was flummoxed by the inclusion of so many details about Hillary’s appearance – do I really need to know that Hilary always wears pop-socks under heels? Or the colour and cut of her suit? The purpose may have been to normalise Hillary but instead, she comes across as flat. In the past, Sittenfeld has so been thorough in exploring the interior world of her characters but I never got past the surface of Hillary – maybe writing a fictional story about a living person who’s in the public eye is simply too tricky?

Much has been made of the sex scenes in this book – I didn’t find them as icky as some readers, although I’ll never ‘un-see’ Bill Clinton playing saxophone in the nude (which made me think also of this guy, and it still makes me laugh).

The highlight of the novel is Sittenfeld’s examination of infidelity. She explores the ‘dilemma’ (‘he’ll change’ versus ‘we’re over’) with an exactness that I think is more representative of the caliber of her writing than the rest of the book.

And even if I’d decided to trust him, there were indications that others didn’t.

As Hillary wrestles with whether to stay with Bill or break off their relationship (‘…the margin between staying and leaving was so thin…’) we see her rational and methodical approach to decision-making in conflict with her heart, and her gut instinct –

I could escape very quickly, it seemed, or never, and I wanted to do both.

I respect Sittenfeld’s concept but ultimately this book got bogged down by too much irrelevant detail, particularly about the American presidential race (which confirmed for me that a) it’s a popularity contest; and b) it’s an obscene waste of money; and c) no compulsory voting cements the issue that it’s a popularity contest for people with obscene amounts of money).

2.5/5 I rounded up to a three on Goodreads because how good was You Think It, I’ll Say It?

In Washington, the reunion dinner was loud and festive, and an attorney’s wife had made so-called Watergate salad, which featured pistachio pudding mix, crushed pineapple, and marshmallows.

Watergate salad sounds like an abomination to me… I don’t understand it at all. Is it a dessert?

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 26): Belfast 12°-18° and Melbourne 5°-12°.

26 responses

    • It doesn’t compare to American Wife and I think it’s perhaps because Hillary is so much more ‘public’ than Laura was. I also think that we can’t overlook how significant it was that Hillary had to manage a MAJOR rupture (and ultimately repair) in her marriage, all played out in such a public way. Everyone had an opinion on Hillary/ Bill/ Monica, and having that in the back of my mind as I read Sittenfeld’s fictional was interesting, and this is where the book is strongest.

  1. A divisive book for sure. Well done for avoiding spoilers! I found it impossible and had to include a whole section of spoilers. I enjoyed this more than you did, I guess because I’m more invested in U.S. politics and I didn’t mind the methodical/detail-driven approach. But I would agree that, overall, HRC has been too much in the public eye for this to feel like a valuable insider’s look in comparison with what American Wife did for Laura Bush. (I can just imagine “you can’t make me vote!” becoming the next defiant statement after “you can’t make me wear a mask!” I despair of my countrymen and -women sometimes. Every presidential election seems more important than the last, and yet there is such apathy about voting. Speaking of which, I just applied for my absentee ballot today.)

    • I love Sittenfeld as well and when I heard about the concept for this book, I was excited. I often fall into the trap of reading everything that an author has written and expecting it all to be fabulous – which is an unreasonable expectation, really! Rodham is at the bottom of my Sittenfeld list but I will certainly read whatever she publishes next.

  2. I’m always a bit unsure of fictional biographies of real people, especially if they’re still alive, so I think I’ll give this a miss. I’d never heard of Watergate salad and it sounds truly foul! I’d also never seen that clip which is just brilliant 😀

    • The sax guy never fails to make me laugh. There are extended clips that show his whole performances – the look of bewilderment on peoples faces is priceless. I was also reminded of sexy sax guy because I recently read Andrew Ridgeley’s memoir and there was an interesting section about how difficult it was for them to find a saxophone player who understood the Careless Whisper ‘vibe’ (they auditioned dozens of musicians from all over the world before finding the right one).

  3. This review has confirmed my view that this book, by an author I’ve always much admired, is going to struggle to get towards the top of my’must-read’ list. Writing semi-fiction about someone who’s still very much alive probably simply can’t be done with any degree of power and veracity. I may pass on this one.

  4. Its a risky idea to write a fictionalised account of someone who is still alive and also very much in the public eye. This doesn’t sound like it has worked at all. I wouldn’t have an issue with the details about the presidential race (no matter how many times someone explains the caucus and electoral college system I still get confused). But am I really interested in what might have happened if she had taken a different decision – not really.

    As for Watergate salad I shouldn’t be surprised about this disgusting sounding mess – this is after all a country which thinks its ok to serve potato topped with marshmallow alongside roast turkey…

  5. By the way, do you have any idea how hard it was to start with this book for the #6Degrees post? Goodness! But I did it, I think! (For my first link I went with the author’s first name being an unusual one for a woman…!)

  6. I’m disappointed but thankful to read your review! I do love Sittenfeld’s writing, and I’ve been intrigued by the concept of this book. I think I’ll still read it at some point, but you’ve helped temper my expectations, so that’s a good thing! I haven’t read American Wife yet, so maybe I’ll bump that up on my list of her books to read.

  7. I have long planned to read An American Wife, so like others here will focus on that rather than Rodham. And I am totally with you on the compulsory voting front – I can’t understand why we don’t have it here in the UK.

    • I’m sure there are some that would say there are plenty of problems with a compulsory voting system but it removes the obvious ‘buying votes’ (which still happens with a compulsory system but in a different way – with policies!).

    • If the idea of the book is offensive then I reckon you’ll find the content abhorrent! I appreciated the concept – it’s risky, and I admire Sittenfeld’s risk-taking (including her rewrite of P&P, a project few authors would dare to agree to) – but it just didn’t find its groove like her other novels.

  8. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation - From Rodham to Spider | A life in books

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