Curtis Sittenfeld likes to imagine the sex lives of presidents.
She did it in “American Wife,” a best seller whose protagonist, Alice Blackwell, stands in for Laura Bush and falls hard for the character modeled on George W. in part because of his exertions between the sheets.
She does it again in “Rodham,” her new novel, to be published on May 19. I won’t soon forget the scene in which Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham distract themselves while driving through Arkansas in a way that redefines “joy ride.”
“Please don’t get pulled over,” Hillary cautions him.
Did this happen? Who knows? The fascination of the first third of “Rodham” is its weave of history and hypothesis as it chronicles the initial meeting of Bill and Hillary at Yale Law School, their courtship and her migration to Arkansas when he makes an unsuccessful run for Congress. Embellished details are grafted onto established events.
The fascination of the rest of “Rodham” is its whole-cloth divergence from the record. Sittenfeld’s novel asks: What if Hillary and Bill hadn’t married? What if her professional arc had been entirely her own?
It’s an ingenious conceit, because it gets to the central paradox of real-life Hillary, the initial reason she became such a mesmerizing, polarizing, meta-cultural Rorschach. She’s a feminist trailblazer who first arrived at stratospheric celebrity because of her husband and was perceived and analyzed largely in terms of her relationship with him. She’s a voice for equal opportunity who kept biting her tongue. Bill indisputably lifted her up; he unequivocally dragged her down.
In Sittenfeld’s novel, she and Bill break up around the time the actual couple got engaged. They’ll intersect anew, but I’d be spoiling “Rodham” to explain how, why and with what result. I’d be encroaching on reviewers’ turf to say whether I found the story believable.
But I’m on firm columnist ground to note the aptness of this book’s appearance now, mid-pandemic, in a season of what-ifs. What if President Trump, early on, had taken more assertive action to contain the coronavirus’s spread? What if someone else were at the helm?
What would Hillary have done?
“I think it’s hard for that thought not to cross one’s mind,” Sittenfeld told me in a recent interview. “When you look at charts showing how many deaths there have been per capita in the U.S. versus other countries, and it’s the same pandemic everywhere, it does seem like there are circumstances or decisions or leadership that affect it.”
I’ll be less decorous. Hillary obviously would have managed this pandemic better, because Trump could hardly have managed it worse.
I’ve had an email relationship with Sittenfeld since 2008, when she sent me a copy of “American Wife” just prior to its publication and let me know that my reporting on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and on his and Laura’s personalities and backgrounds had informed her work. It’s a terrific book, but I’m obviously biased. I read it and thought, “Yes, yes, that’s Laura Bush. If we could see inside, that’s what we’d discover.”
“Rodham” has a different emphasis. While “American Wife” struck me as narrowly focused political archaeology — an excavation of one woman’s character — “Rodham” is wide-ranging political anthropology, concerned not so much with what makes Hillary tick as it is with the culture around her and how she might have shaped events, and been shaped by them, if the pieces of reality’s jigsaw were rearranged just so.
It’s stippled with clever mischief along those lines. I don’t think I’m giving away too much — though you should stop right here if you’re worried — to say that the “60 Minutes” interview in which Bill addressed questions about infidelity, Hillary’s “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies” remark, Vince Foster’s suicide, George Stephanopoulos’s disaffection, the sudden rise of Barack Obama and the chants of “Lock her up!” are all present and accounted for. But they occur in altered form and contexts, with new consequences.
Maybe the difference between “American Wife” and “Rodham” — both narrated by their heroines — stems from Hillary’s inscrutability. I asked Sittenfeld who was harder to inhabit: Laura or Hillary.
“It took me a while to be able to hear Hillary’s voice in my own head,” she said. She did a deep dive into all that’s been written about and by Hillary, but noted that much of the journalism rehashes the same old tropes and that Hillary has kept a tightly drawn curtain over her heart and soul. Her memoirs aren’t exactly intimate.
So Sittenfeld had to will herself into Hillary’s perspective. “I felt like I put on a pantsuit and a blond wig,” she said.
I mentioned her fixation on first ladies and asked whether there might be Michelle Obama and Melania Trump novels to come. No, she said, suggesting that Michelle’s 2018 memoir, “Becoming,” was so openhearted and definitive that it didn’t leave much room for a novelist.
And Melania? Sittenfeld declined to say much about the current first lady to me, but she previously told The Guardian that she didn’t “see her as someone whose consciousness I yearn to explore.” Sittenfeld’s method of working is to enter a world where she’s content to spend considerable time and where she can nurture sympathy, even admiration, for her subject. Both the Laura analogue in “American Wife” and Hillary in “Rodham” are indisputably sympathetic figures.
In any case, Sittenfeld said, “I feel like my interest in Hillary Clinton is not as a first lady, it’s as the first female major party nominee for president. So, to me, she is not defined by her relationship to Bill.” The novel essentially formalizes that position — and then builds on it.
For decades I’ve listened to Hillary’s detractors opine that if she hadn’t hitched her wagon to Bill’s, she wouldn’t have traveled so far. But the reverse could be truer. At one point in the book, a woman who works with Hillary tells her, “It’s weird you almost married Bill Clinton because he seems so unworthy of you.”
I asked Sittenfeld if, after playing with the notion that Hillary went her own way, she’s surprised that the real Hillary said, “I do.”
“No!” Sittenfeld responded. “Actually, the opposite.” Noting that as part of her research, she read the first quarter of Bill’s 1,000-page autobiography, “My Life,” which covers everything up until the Clintons’ marriage, she said: “I felt myself falling in love with Bill Clinton. And I consciously thought, ‘If it were 1975 and Bill Clinton wanted me to move to Arkansas and marry him, I would do it.’”
“If you look at pictures from their wedding, they have these dreamy expressions on their faces and he’s very handsome and she’s very pretty and I believe that they genuinely fell in love,” Sittenfeld said. “I believe they were attracted to each other.”
“Believe,” “believe” — there’s a crucial humility in those words, a recognition of all the supposition that comes into play with so many public figures. Somewhere along the way, we develop fixed ideas about who they are, and then we take the accuracy of that assessment for granted, confusing their ubiquity in our lives with a true understanding of them. We mistake their smoke signals for blazing revelations.
But smoke signals are all we really have, and we read those from a distance. Certainly we journalists do. There are whole facets of public figures’ humanity — of the Clintons’ humanity — that we don’t have access to and can’t explore. But a novelist can, so Sittenfeld did. Indulging in guesswork, she visited interiors and rummaged around in intimacies that are otherwise off limits.
“Falling in love and kissing another person — that’s what you read novels for, and that’s what you write novels for,” she said. “I certainly read a lot of nonfiction and respect it, but even the most personal profile of a public figure is not going to have almost anything about them kissing or feeling attracted to someone or maybe having sex and feeling awkward.”
In other words the sex in “Rodham” isn’t just about sex. It’s about mystery and misperception, and it speaks to a hypothetical even bigger than Hillary’s parting of company with Bill. What if we’ve never really known her at all?
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