Magpie Book Club: Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Rodham.”

Four stars. I could not put this book down. I found it to be the perfect poolside companion while on my brief vacation in Quogue, NY earlier this month: quick-footed in pace, juicy and occasionally salacious, and gripping in the sense that I often forgot — despite knowing that I was reading fiction — that I was not actually sitting with a memoir by Hillary Clinton herself. For those unfamiliar with this book, Rodham is a fictionalization of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life that explores what might have happened had she not married Bill. But more accurately, it is an interrogation of gender and race in politics and the ethics that surround them. The plot hinges heavily on two critical, complicated, and uncomfortable decisions the fictional Hillary must make: first, when she must weigh whether or not to trust a woman who alleges that Bill has sexually assaulted her and second, when she must decide whether to prioritize her own political ambitions over those of a Black female politician. Despite the urgency and heft of these matters and their alarming proximity to plausible real-life events, the book is nothing short of delicious. It is sharp, brightly-drawn, and fast-moving. I normally dislike books that jump back and forth in time, but here, the chronological shifts are well-deployed: they left me hungry to race to the end to learn how things would play out.

Sittenfeld does a remarkable job demonstrating the crossover between public and private spheres and the messiness of politics. For example, when fictional Hillary must decide whether to act on the allegation of fictional Bill’s sexual misconduct, we as readers see both her private pain and the way in which her decision-making is inherently political and has ramifications beyond her personal relationship with her boyfriend. Would ignoring the allegation make her complicit in enabling a morally-compromised man to rise to office? Does this run at odds with her fashioning of a public platform as a woman for other women? As readers (and, by extension, citizens and voters), can we forgive that? Does staying in a relationship with Bill undermine her own ethics–both those publicly touted and those to which she holds herself personally accountable (not, as the book establishes, always the same thing)? And there are also practical elements to consider: is it possible the woman is lying for some reason? What are her motives? Why would she tell Hillary this instead of leaking this to the press? Is it Hillary’s civic duty to come forward with this information? These quandaries are stirring and a propos of 2020 events in the sense that they reminded me that inaction can be damning. But how damning? The book flirts with the age-old query: do the ends justify the means?

The book, like Sittenfeld’s earlier work The American Wife (a fictionalization of Laura Bush’s life, which I also enjoyed) is not overtly partisan. In fact, the two books taken together might be seen as an act of bi-partisanship in that we are drawn into the complicated, challenging, and surprisingly relatable lives of these two very public figures. Both books humanize two influential women who are nearly always caricatured.

As I read, I couldn’t help but ponder the ethics of the authorship of these books. I will be the first to admit that I have occasionally had difficulty separating the fictional elements and plot points of these books from real-world facts. Sittenfeld complicates this (likely intended) effect by using some known, historically accurate details and entirely fictionalizing others. While I found the result wildly creative and oddly satisfying (who doesn’t wonder about the private lives of public figures?), I marveled that it was permissible to publish these books. Some parts feel downright libelous, as when we are drawn into the bedrooms of fictional Bill and fictional Hillary, or when we learn that the fictional George W. Bush uses drugs recreationally. The gambit made me think back to the James Frey A Million Little Pieces debacle, where a book that was marketed as autobiographical proved to be entirely fabricated. Sittenfeld’s books are different in the sense that they are clearly marketed as fiction (and there are so many things that happen in these books that are obviously fabricated — I mean, Hillary doesn’t even marry Bill in her book!), but the fact that they draw so heavily on facts from the lives of public figures is confounding. To be clear, I am not questioning the right of Sittenfeld to write and publish whatever she chooses (first amendment!) and am the very happy beneficiary of her decision to do so (I so enjoyed these books!), but I am wondering how she feels about the reality that she may have a hand in pre-dispositioning readers when it comes to their perspectives on these highly influential women.

All in all, an admirable amount to chew on for a book that I might escalate to my list of the top ten best beach reads of all time.

Who else has read this?! What do you think?

Curtis Sittenfeld “Rodham” Book Club Questions.

In case you choose this book for your next virtual book club, here are a few discussion points to consider. (Caveat: Some of these questions contain spoilers!)

+What did you make of Hillary’s decision not to speak up about Bill’s sexual assault allegations, but to leave Bill nonetheless? Does this decision make you think differently of the character?

+Why do you think Sittenfeld chose to imagine Hillary’s life without a marriage to Bill (versus changing other life events, for example)?

+This book explores gender dynamics in politics. What do you think Sittenfeld is saying about them? What conclusions do you draw?

+Were you comfortable with the mix of fact and fiction in this book? Was it hard to draw lines between the two?

Post Scripts.

+What else to read this summer.

+My favorite quote from Rodham.

+I am still working my way through The Warmth of Other Suns (some early thoughts here), but I will be reviewing it next. I am also currently listening to Andre Leon Talley’s memoir, The Chiffon Trenches. Talley was a longtime editor-at-large of Vogue and one of very few Black men in the upper echelons of high fashion. Talley narrates the audiobook himself, which is a true delight, as his voice is distinctive, playful, and prodigious with personality.

+At the same time, I am tearing through The Heir Affair as a fluffy sidecar when I can’t sleep or need to keep one eye on the children. So far, it’s not as good as its precursor The Royal We (one of my all-time favorite beach reads) but it scratches an itch.

+I just finished listening to Mike Isaac’s SuperPumped, an expose on the rise of Uber and its (in)famous founder, Travis Kalanick. I was not crazy about it. I found the author almost intolerably smug. I felt as though he was consistently talking out of both sides of his mouth, especially in the way he disparages the mythologizing of Silicon Valley unicorn startups while at the same time contributing to the phenomenon by virtue of the authorship of this book; critiques Kalanick’s oversized ego while at multiple points demonstrating the same self-aggrandizement himself, i.e., “the whole world was waiting breathlessly for me to publish my piece on Uber”; and at once lionizes and demonizes Kalanick and other figures in the book. That said, the book is an interesting, in-depth study of Silicon Valley in the early aughts and the complicated struggle of building a disruptive technology business.

+There is a GREAT selection of pieces from Miguelina on super sale at The Outnet — this would be so pretty for a bride to be (more bridal finds here); this skirt is darling with a simple white tee; and this little frothy find is beyond.

+Still a few of these adorable dresses from Indego available.

+Cute cocktail napkins!

+We have this carrier for Hill — wish it had been available in that adorable gingham print! Obsessed with it!

+Do you not adore this burlap drum pendant?!

+This blockprint-style caftan dress is adorable.

+I had to order this two-piece!

+Speaking of two-pieces, OMG this set! So chic and dramatic with a low bun.

+Cutest outdoor table for your little ones.

+Love this affordable floral dress.

+Have long lusted after the print on this Thierry Coulson dress (now on sale plus an extra 20% off).

+Finally caved and bought these.

+After publishing my post on stunning every day jewelry, I discovered two other ultra-chic jewelry storage solutions: this velvet jewelry box for precious or important-sentimental-value pieces and this monogrammed round.

+Just the sweetest pieces on sale at Jacadi right now — love this classic petal collar dress; this striped dress for an older gal (maybe next year’s FOJ look?); and these classic swimsuits.

+Wow, this floral dress — reminds me of D&G.

+Thinking back on my desperate desire to be a discerning reader…and on coming to terms with not being numbers person.

6 Comments

  1. Sittenfeld has been one of my favorite authors since Prep (so scandelous, thoughtful, and delightfully voyeuristic to read as a high schooler surrounded by a few friends that skipped off to boarding schools). I pre-ordered Rodham – something I NEVER do as a die-hard library enthusiast – and similarly devoured it. Really enjoyed reading your reflection on the story and agree with the deft chronology she navigated and the nimble mix of real-life events with easily-believable-as-real-life events along Hillary’s path in the novel.

    I found (and still) find myself wondering if any of the Clintons have read it and what they think. I similarly often wondering the same about buzzy public takes on political figures’ lives (chiefly, The Crown; but also takes like The Heir Affair, American Wife, etc., all of which I’ve enjoyed). What I would give to hear an unfiltered review from the primary source!

    1. Hi Erica! Actually have not yet read Prep but now want to read it given how much I enjoyed her other two — thanks for the reminder! I also wonder if the Clintons have read the book. I sometimes imagined them laughing with each other about it, or maybe recoiling? Like what would they make of all the sex scenes?! AHHH. I am blushing for Sittenfeld. What if Sittenfeld meets Hillary or Bill?! Can you imagine the conversation?

      xx

  2. I’m really excited to read Rodham, The Warmth of Other Suns, and The Heir Affair this summer! Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful reviews.

    I’m currently reading Friends & Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan. I’ve found her other books to be hit or miss, but I’m really enjoying this one — an examination of womanhood, motherhood, friendship, etc.

    Another recently-finished book I loved: Severance by Ling Ma! I had actually begun it last winter and had to put it down when COVID-19 hit — it was a little too on-the-nose. However, something made me pick it back up a couple of weeks ago and I finished it and really loved it. I was shocked by how many parallels there are between events in the book and our current pandemic, so it might not be for everyone … but I found it to be really creative and thought-provoking.

    xx

    1. Intriguing! It’s funny you mention that because Mr. Magpie and I are watching “Deadwood” for the first time and have just come upon a part in the plot that deals with an outbreak of smallpox…we keep cringing. “Too much, not now!” I feel like I might want to read the Ma book another year…

      Have heard good things about that Sullivan book! It’s all over the place!

      xx

  3. Rodham really stuck with me! While I felt a bit bogged down in the early, more biographical section, I found myself racing through the second half of the book and pondering it for days after finishing it. The theme of compromise kept coming to mind. The compromises Hillary makes are such a deft illustration of how sexism constantly nips at her heels as a public figure, as the male politicians do not seem compelled to make the same compromises in order to put themselves forth for public office. At the same time, Hillary approached her fork in the road decisions with such a strong sense of self worth and ownership of her decisions, never a sense of victimization.

    I had similar thoughts about the woman who approached Hillary with her allegations, and I saw it as a bit of a sign of the times – Hillary thinks of what Bill may have done as a wrong in the context of their relationship but not necessarily a crime until many years later.

    Sittenfeld is such a keen, compassionate observer of modern life and human behavior, and I love when her sense of humor comes through in her writing. Her short story collection is excellent!

    1. Hi Sarah – Yes, completely agree on the theme of compromise in this book — you put it so well: “how sexism constantly nips at her heels…as the male politicians do not seem compelled to make the same compromises.” Can’t wait to read her short story collection! Xx

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