A few years before Notorious R.B.G. or the “” children’s book, we had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: a girlboss meme , a totem in sunglasses apprising her BlackBerry. (A headline in the Washington Post that “Hillary Clinton is finally hip, thanks to a meme.”) When I lived with a group of eight women in college, one of my roommates printed Clinton’s smiling face on pinnies for all of us, as if we were a sports team, and she was our mascot.
Whenever Clinton ran for President, though, it became harder to see her so simply. One might have longed for a candidate with fewer dimensions, for a world where it was somehow possible to excise the most disturbing chapters—the support of Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare-reform bills, the vote to invade Iraq, the unwavering defense of a husband accused of rape and sexual harassment—from the story of her career, leaving the lifelong advocate for women and children, the first feminist standard-bearer to become a major party’s Presidential nominee.
One person who indulged in this counterfactual was, apparently, the writer Curtis Sittenfeld. In her new novel, “,” she imagines a Hillary who has managed to avoid most of the controversy that clings to her real-life counterpart. To start with, the fictional model breaks up with Bill after law school instead of marrying him. From that rupture with reality, in 1975, Sittenfeld steers her heroine to an alternate-universe 2016 election, one she enters unencumbered by all the baggage that the Clintons accrued over four decades in politics. The book implicitly blames Bill for most of that. “If I was no longer his girlfriend, and never his wife, I was not responsible for his behavior, not even by extension,” the fictional Hillary reflects as she drives away from Arkansas after the pivotal breakup. “This absolution was my reward for losing him.”
“Rodham” yields to the fantasy that we could reshuffle the deck of the recent past and deal again. Sittenfeld rearranges real moments alongside invented ones; events from 2016, including an infamous speech, reappear in the novel in altered contexts. Though this limits the transportive properties of Sittenfeld’s fiction, it also produces an illuminating historical artifact. Like a piece of flotsam that holds clues to why the ship wrecked, the warped events of “Rodham” are the right shape to contain an emotional truth: the novel’s version of Hillary is more or less the one that many supporters wished they were voting for.
When she inhabited a lightly fictionalized Laura Bush, in “,” published in 2008, Sittenfeld’s primary interest was the inner life of her subject, who slowly comes to see how her marriage has consumed the person she otherwise might have been. Readers who open “Rodham” hoping to glimpse the real Clinton’s private self may find the inside of Hillary’s head sparsely furnished. Her decisive, disciplined nature shines its light into the corners where most mortals stash their inner conflicts. She lives according to what she calls “the Rule of Two: If I was unsure of a course of action but could think of two reasons for it, I’d do it.” As Laura Miller , “Rodham” is a close cousin of fan fiction吻胸口解内衣, a genre that offers new endings to stories that thwarted their readers’ desires. The impulse is to give an audience what it will least object to, which is not always conducive to compelling portraiture.
Inevitably, the first third of “Rodham,” which hews to the loose outline of actual history, progresses more slowly than what will follow. Early chapters covering the courtship of the fictional Bill and Hillary serve to establish that she has inviolable principles, while he has none. The beginning of the end of their love affair comes when she stops him from using bribe money, possibly costing him a seat in Congress. “This is the best decision you’ve ever made,” a friend tells Hillary when she leaves Arkansas, heartbroken. “Now your life belongs to you again.”
The pace picks up when the novel reopens, in 1991. Hillary is an unmarried law professor at Northwestern University; after the Anita Hill hearings, she is approached about running for the U.S. Senate. Hillary hesitates, especially when she realizes that she won’t be the only woman in the race: Carol Moseley Braun—who, in reality, became the first black woman to serve in the Senate when she was elected, in 1992—is also hoping to seize the feminist momentum in the air. It’s in these deliberations, as she tries to disentangle the will to power from the desire to serve, that Sittenfeld’s Hillary feels most fully human. Here, the novel shuns the worst temptation of fan fiction—to place the audience always at ease—and shows a white woman benefitting from racism in an act of willful blindness that she never lives down.
吻胸口解内衣While Hillary wins her seat, Bill falters without her, and drops out of the 1992 primary. The list of ways their breakup changes history thus includes an altered succession of Presidents. John McCain becomes Commander-in-Chief instead of George W. Bush, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq never occurs. Conveniently, this rescues Sittenfeld’s Hillary from casting an unpardonable vote for an indefensible war. By the time she runs for President, in 2016, the fictional Hillary is not exactly a saint. But, unlike the real version, nor is she a vilified proxy for the very idea of a woman in politics. Described “as a hard worker, a pragmatic centrist, and a Midwestern bore,” her closest real-life analogue might be Amy Klobuchar. Recent history contradicts Sittenfeld’s premise that such a person could mount a competitive bid for the Presidency, and the final chapters of “Rodham” are its least convincing.
But this less controversial Hillary does leave Sittenfeld free to settle certain debates. Did people hate the real candidate for being a woman or for being a Clinton? In the novel, there is only one answer when men at the rallies of a political rival take to chanting, “Shut her up!” “I confess that even as I found the phenomenon disturbing, a part of me felt vindicated,” Hillary thinks. “Generally speaking, complaints about sexism were perceived as sour grapes. Proof was elusive, situations subject to interpretation. Yet was this not the starkest proof?”
What can we learn from imagining a Hillary whose life sustains only a single interpretation? Reading “Rodham,” I sometimes missed the rich text of the real Clinton. Her many contradictions may be maddening, but they also reflect the impossible position that she endured as, for years or decades, the most prominent woman in American politics. Sittenfeld manages to squeeze in the real Clinton’s infamous dig at stay-at-home mothers (“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies”), but it doesn’t have the same complicated zing in the mouth of a judicious senator as it did from a woman who dared to think that America’s most visible helpmeet might have a right to a professional life of her own.
吻胸口解内衣Still, by stripping away our misgivings, Sittenfeld makes room for the catharsis of uncomplicated regret. Giving her stump speech at a girls’ school, the fictional Hillary can feel “how close we were to the barrier that was often referred to as a glass ceiling but that I instinctively pictured as a large grassy field that, through some combination of fate and ambition, I was the likeliest person to get across first.” She continues: