Alternate histories explore the what-ifs of the past. What if the Nazis had defeated Britain before Pearl Harbor triggered the US entry into World War II? What if the British had captured and imprisoned George Washington? Or, as in the case of Curtis Sittenfeld’s intriguing alternate political history, what if Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton? Would either one of them have reached the White House? And how might today’s world be different as a result of the changing trajectories followed by these two exceptional individuals?
A familiar path, then a surprise
Hillary Rodham‘s path through life is well known. Born in 1947. A middle-class upbringing in a Chicago suburb. B.A. from Wellesley College, where her speech at commencement in 1969 garnered national attention. J.D. from Yale University. There, she met and later married Bill Clinton. Staff lawyer on the Nixon impeachment. Law professor at the University of Arkansas. Then a series of longer experiences:
- First Lady of Arkansas (nine years)
- First Lady of the United States (eight years)
- United States Senator from New York (eight years)
- Barack Obama’s Secretary of State (four years)
All of which was in preparation for her unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 2016. But how different might Rodham’s life have looked if she had opted not to marry Bill Clinton in 1975 but to strike out on her own then? That’s the challenge Sittenfeld takes up in her captivating alternate political history, Rodham.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (2020) 417 pages ★★★★★
An independent path in politics
In Sittenfeld’s telling, Hillary Rodham has moved to Arkansas and followed Bill Clinton through the early stages of his political career. When he proposes marriage, she agrees at first. But then increasing reports of his infidelity raise doubts, and she breaks off the relationship. On her own, she builds a successful career as a political activist and professor of law at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago, near her parents’ home.
When she runs for the United States Senate in 1992 to replace Alan Dixon, her path to the White House opens up. And from that point on, her story and Bill Clinton’s sharply diverge. Clinton loses his bid for the governor’s mansion and sets out for Silicon Valley. There, he amasses a fortune as a tech investor. Meanwhile, Rodham serves for three terms in the Senate. And in 2004 she launches her first, unsuccessful run for the Presidency. Many more surprises follow. And not just in Bill and Hillary’s lives, but in the nation’s.
An alternate political history of the United States
Consider, for example, Sittenfeld’s amusing alternate chronology of “American Presidents and Vice Presidents elected 1988-2012.”
- 1988: George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle
- 1992: George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle
- 1996: Jerry Brown and Bob Kerrey
- 2000: John McCain and Sam Brownback
- 2004: John McCain and Sam Brownback
- 2008: Barack Obama and Joe Biden
- 2012: Barack Obama and Joe Biden
Many what-ifs surface
The what-ifs abound in this thought-provoking novel:
- What if Bill Clinton had not had Hillary by his side in his campaign for Governor of Arkansas? Would he have won? (Or, alternatively, would he have won even more readily?)
- What if Clinton had never attained the governorship of Arkansas? Would, or could, he have continued to build a political career? Would his childhood ambition to serve as President draw him into the race in any case?
- But, mostly, what if Hillary Rodham had been on her own, free to run for office out of Bill Clinton’s shadow? Might she have reached the pinnacle of political leadership?
Some recognizable characters out of history
Sittenfeld mixes recognizable, true-life characters such as Bill Clinton with others she disguises with a light touch. Rodham’s good friend Gwen is, of course, the redoubtable Marian Wright Edelman. The National Children’s Initiative is the Children’s Defense Fund. And Gwen’s husband, Richard, is Peter Edelman. But in other cases there is no similarity between the characters in the novel and the people in Rodham’s life. That’s the case with the law firm in Oakland where she interned for a summer in 1971. Robert Treuhaft, the firm’s senior partner, appears nowhere in the novel, with or without disguise. Nor does his partner Malcolm Burnstein, one of my closest friends, who vividly remembers Hillary Rodham as a young Yale Law graduate. But, after all, what is an alternate political history if not a mixture of fiction and fact?
About the author
Curtis Sittenfeld (born 1975) has written a collection of short stories and six novels to date, including Prep (set in a Massachusetts prep school) and American Wife (a fictional account of the life of First Lady Laura Bush). She holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
For further reading
This is one of The best books of 2021.
For a novel by Hillary Clinton, see State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny (The new Hillary Clinton novel is a page-turner).
The political novels of Thomas Mallon may interest you, including:
- Dewey Defeats Truman (A terrific political history novel)
- Fellow Travelers (Thomas Mallon on America’s third Red Scare)
- Landfall (A novelist’s sympathetic portrait of George W. Bush)
You might also enjoy:
- 10 best alternate history novels reviewed here
- Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site (plus dozens of runners-up)
- 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up
- The decade’s top 10 historical novels, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.