Content Warning: Mentions of sexual assault and rape
The first time I ever walked into the Ville’s Wellesley Books on Sept. 12, an entire shelf was dedicated to “Rodham” by Curtis Sittenfeld. “Rodham” being glorified Hillary Clinton fanfiction, and Wellesley being as inappropriately enamored with her as we are, I was not surprised. In fact, the part of me desperate for a scrap of Wellesley literary representation eventually eclipsed the part that refuses to buy into Hillary idolatry, and I purchased the book — the first full-price hardcover that I have bought in years.
The premise of the novel is a counterfactual version of Hillary Rodham’s life and career, had she never married Bill Clinton. Firstly, if you are excited about this book just for the sake of reading about our campus, don’t be. The only scene that takes place at Wellesley is in the five-page prologue, where Hillary is giving her famous 1969 commencement speech. The sole descriptions of campus we get are allusions to “green lawns” and “wood-paneled classrooms,” and then we are immediately transported to Yale Law School, where the story actually begins.
The first 150 pages are filled with way too intimate descriptions of Bill and Hillary’s courtship. Now, we are all adults here, and it is just a fact that literary fiction often contains sex scenes. Being someone who reads semi-consistently, I have trudged through many an awkward sex scene, but “Rodham” takes it to a whole other level. Now, the embarrassment I felt is partly due to the fact that I was reading a Billary sex scene in the first place, but the writing itself does not do the situation any favors, either. Read on cautiously for a particularly unfortunate line of dirty talk:
“‘Hillary,’ [Bill] said in a crooning voice, ‘[…] I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this during a women’s movement, but you have great t*ts. And your little waist, and your nice bum, and your delicious honey pot —’”
This line, when taken in the context of the rest of Bill Clinton’s characterization, is even more off-putting. He is painted early on as a sex addict, and this manifests itself in several instances of infidelity or near-infidelity, as well as, a strange confessional where Bill admits to being a “horny b*stard” whose “male urges” are all-consuming and overwhelming. I definitely understand the intent of this backstory: to create a character who, in an alternate reality, would have been a part of the most infamous presidential sex scandal in history. However, it is done with an exceptionally heavy and clumsy hand, which makes suspension of disbelief practically impossible. Bill seems to shapeshift from one villainous archetype to another; at the beginning of the novel, he is the quintessential popular bro-type who, in reality, is unbelievably fragile and instinctively gaslights every woman in his life. Then, he morphs into the pandering politician who gladly forsakes old flames in order to further his campaign. Then, a convicted sexual harasser and accused rapist. And, by the end of the novel, he reaches his final form, an unsavory tech billionaire who frequents rich-people orgies animated by ecstasy and women 20 years younger than him. Bill is very clearly the primary antagonist of the novel, which emphasizes Hillary as its champion.
Attempts to complicate Hillary’s character, and perhaps address her moral gray area, are not fleshed out and serve only to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. The prime example of this is a Senate race, where Hillary makes a point to endorse a Black candidate named Carol Moseley Braun. In reality, Braun becomes the first-ever Black female senator. However, in the novel, Braun arrives at her own campaign luncheon extremely late, and Hillary has to make a filibustering speech until Braun eventually bursts in, apologizing “loudly.” The event is followed by an influential donor to the Democratic party practically begging Hillary to run for the Senate seat as Braun’s competitor because Braun is “late to everything,” “incredibly disorganized” and is managed by a “very weird South African man she’s rumored to be involved with.” This conversation is the main thing that drives Hillary to pivot from being an important endorsement for Braun to her primary challenger and the eventual winner of the race.
This decision costs Hillary an important friendship, but, career-wise, she capitalizes on it greatly. And from the reader’s perspective, this is justified. With all the information we have, Braun’s campaign is objectively disorganized and in shambles. Sittenfeld had a good opportunity here to show how internalized racism can warp perceptions, especially when the power plays of politics are involved. But, instead, she chooses to create a character that bears all the hallmarks of a stereotypical Black woman and lets Hillary take advantage of her. The problems with this are exacerbated when you remember that Carol Moseley Braun is a real political figure, whose image and identity were exploited in order to personify an exceptionally damaging cliche.
There are several other jarring aspects of the novel that dilute its overarching intent. Hillary’s love life post-Bill is a large plot point and results in a lot of tremendously juvenile mannerisms, even as Hillary’s age reaches into her 50s and 60s. Her inner dialogue shows very little development over the 45 years that the novel spans and numerous forgettable side characters flit in and out of her life. Efforts to mimic teenage vernacular result in tragic uses of “zaddy,” “on fleek” and “@PictureofWhorianGray,” and, to finish it off, a rogue Donald Trump appears to make a presidential endorsement for Hillary that served as one more of the novel’s painstaking attempts to relate itself tangentially to real-world dynamics.
In this version of Hillary’s life, there are no Middle Eastern militant strongholds for her to strengthen or Iraq War for her to vote in favor of. No opportunity for her to use racist rhetoric or strengthen institutions that continuously fail communities of color. By excluding these things from Hillary’s counterfactual narrative, “Rodham”’s role as wish-fulfillment fanfiction becomes even more rigid. This book was created for the ignorantly avid Hillary Clinton fan, and, unfortunately, it seems like many representatives of that demographic reside on Wellesley’s campus. There is a reason why Wellesley Books chose to push this book so hard, after all. Clinton is constantly pushed as the paragon of “Wellesley Woman”-hood, even though her political stances make the ethics of that extremely questionable.
So, Wellesley, do not read “Rodham” by Curtis Sittenfeld. Not only because it is a poorly written book, but also because who Hillary Clinton actually is, and what she has actually done, is infinitely more important than who we want her to be.