Question: which American president and first lady would you care to imagine having intercourse? If that provokes a shudder, be assured that the sex scenes between Yale law students Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton in Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel are cringe-free — even the one involving manual stimulation that takes place in a moving car. They’re young, they’re in love, it’s adorable. For Hillary, who has ruefully accepted that a fierce intellect is a drawback when it comes to dating, the leonine charmer from Arkansas is a gift dropped from heaven. Until he isn’t.
A stumbling first paragraph sounds a warning about the limitations and non-literary quality of Hillary’s first-person narration. Fortunately, Sittenfeld is a great stylist and moves on quickly to a voice that’s plain yet pained, subdued yet supple, with unexpressed depths beneath the surface. Hillary has grown a carapace of indifference to male disdain, thanks to her father’s constant jibes. Without being a devastating wit, she always has a comeback; when he wishes aloud that a political rival was his daughter instead of her, she bats back ‘So do I’. The hurt remains implicit.
Just when you might be wondering what the point of a novel based on real and living people might be, Sittenfeld begins to rewrite history. This is a Hillary who, after a few attempts at ‘strategising’ her boyfriend’s sex drive, cannot in the end countenance his compulsive womanising. Their paths diverge. Hillary presses on with her political ambitions, and Sittenfeld devises a surprising alternative career path for Bill (one I didn’t quite buy), until they meet again during the race for the Democratic nomination for presidential candidate.
It’s an ingenious yet plausible glimpse of an alternative reality, and so involving that it occasionally comes as a shock to realise that there is a different reality, and we are living in it. Readers who are up to speed with the minutiae of American politics could take a deep dive, matching the text diligently against the facts, noting who’s real and what never happened, and admiring Sittenfeld’s skill. Everyone else could just try to read it as a novel, albeit one where moments, such as Hillary’s early preference for trousers to skirts, act as a sharp elbow nudge.
The book is illuminating, grimly so, about the degree of scrutiny given to public figures in the internet age. This Hillary rages against double standards when it comes to male and female candidates. One of the great ironies is that she can be embroiled in a sex scandal without ever having had the sex. The real Hillary probably railed too; but if there’s one message Rodham wants to get across, it’s the radical mismatch between private personality and public persona. The very fact that Sittenfeld is writing this, and we are reading it, points to the mechanism by which we feel we ‘know’ people in the public eye whom we’ve never met. The novel dramatises how eerie it feels to be the object of mass projection.
As time goes on Hillary is backed into some unenviable political corners. The ambience, at once cheapskate and opulent, of a meeting with Trump is well evoked. It takes no great satirist to send up the Donald, but the tweets don’t disappoint. The micro-management of a presidential candidate by her team, right down to pantyhose, is startling. By the time we get to the end we’re light years away from our own reality. Unemphatic as ever, Hillary just states: ‘It was profoundly moving’ — and she’s not wrong.
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