Hillary Clinton's life feels like it belongs to us. She’s given us three memoirs. Two agonizing presidential campaigns. A docuseries charting her entire career. Her story — the law partnerships, the rejected marriage proposals, the First Lady firsts — is almost as familiar to us as our own. And now, best-selling author Curtis Sittenfeld is making it hers.
Her new novel, Rodham, marks Sittenfeld’s return to the interior lives of political women; her 2008 critical darling American Wife was loosely based on Laura Bush. Here, the bones of a life are transformed into juicy wish-fulfillment fiction.
In this excerpt — the cover story for EW's Summer Books Special — we meet Hillary Rodham in the summer of 1991, a decade and a half after she fled her life in Arkansas. She’s just received a call from her ex-boyfriend, Bill Clinton — their first contact since she drove away from Little Rock and (almost) never looked back.
I lived in the Streeterville neighborhood, on East Lake Shore Drive, and I could see Lake Michigan from my living room and bedroom. I’d bought the apartment the year after getting tenure, and when I’d shown it to my parents, my father had said, “Someone certainly thinks she deserves the finer things.” When my call with Bill ended, I walked from the kitchen to the living room, looked out at the vastness of the lake, and felt resentful.
With the Fourth of July behind me and eight weeks before the school year began, I had planned to renew my focus this morning on the casebook I was writing with a friend at Cornell; I wanted to finish a draft by the end of the summer. Now I felt distracted and injured. From the moment I’d stepped into my apartment the night before, Bill Clinton had defined my mood, and I had let him. And good God, what if he was elected president? I’d see him in the news every day, watching as he was sworn in on a bible, as Air Force One touched down on runways in Tokyo and Brussels, as he spoke from behind a podium in the Rose Garden. As he, Bill Clinton, the man who’d broken my heart and endlessly delighted me and once given me an orgasm on an Arkansas highway, was addressed as “Mr. President.”
Surely, if he was elected, some form of exposure therapy would occur in which I began to perceive him as the national leader rather than my ex-boyfriend. But I no longer felt what I had at Yale or in Arkansas, which had been not just a belief in his talents but an investment in that belief. It was far from clear to me that I hoped he’d succeed. Back when we’d been a couple, I’d thought he was wonderful and brilliant, and I’d loved thinking so. Yet, was he wonderful and brilliant? Was he now, had he ever been? Had he changed in the last decade and a half, and if so, how? I was confident, based on our conversation, that he’d still be good company to sit next to at a dinner party, especially if he were trying to extract a favor. But as president, would he be ethically casual, irresponsibly magnanimous, vulnerable to his enemies due to weaknesses that he erroneously believed he could conceal or at least be forgiven for? Besides that, did he have any shot at unseating George Bush, whose approval ratings were around 70 percent? I had heard that other Democrats who might run included Bill Bradley, Al Gore, and Mario Cuomo, but the only person who’d declared so far was the former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas.
No more than a minute or two had passed since I’d hung up the phone. I lifted the receiver and called Maureen. When she answered, I said, “Is this a bad time?”
“I’m standing in my mudroom watching my kids fight over an inflatable raft in the pool.”
“Do you need to go outside?”
“Maybe. What are you doing?”
“Bill Clinton just called to say he’s running for president and he wants me to tell reporters how great he is.”
“Wait, really?” Maureen said. “Oh, geez. Are you okay?”
“Those weren’t the words he used.”
“I know everyone thought it was his destiny, but it’s wild that he’s actually running. Can he win?”
“It’s not impossible.”
“Do you wish you were married to him?”
I hesitated. “No?” I added, “Although sometimes I wish I were married to someone.”
“Well, there are plenty of someones who wish they were married to you. I’m sure if you wanted a mediocre marriage like the rest of us, you could have it.” After eighteen years together, Maureen often complained that Steve didn’t appreciate her or everything she did to take care of their children and make their household function. At the same time, she was candid, at least with me, about how she liked being able to send the kids to private school and ski in Colorado over spring break — Steve had risen through the ranks at LaSalle Bank.
I said, “I’m really grateful for everything I have.” I thought of my students, my positions on the boards of the League of Women Voters and a Chicago organization that provided services to young adults in foster care, my Election Day work. “Things are good almost all of the time,” I continued. “But every so often this gaping hole of loneliness opens up.”
“Sometimes a gaping hole of loneliness opens up while I’m in the same room with my husband and children,” Maureen said. “Sometimes it opens up while Meredith is literally sitting on me.”
Then she yelled, “Johnny, I can see you. Do you know that I can see you? Leave your sister alone.” Talking to me again, she said, “Sorry, where were we? Oh, right, gaping loneliness. So should I vote for Bill or not?”
“He has the primary to get through before we need to worry about that. If you were me, would you say nice things about him to reporters?”
“Really?” I was surprised by her certainty.
“Why would you?”
“I think if he could have controlled his behavior, he would have.”
“Do people ever say that when a woman does the things he did?”
I sighed. “If I make myself work for a few hours, can I come over around five with a bottle of wine?”
I could hear Maureen smiling through the phone. She said, “I thought you’d never ask.”
FROM THE BOOK RODHAM: A NOVEL BY CURTIS SITTENFELD. COPYRIGHT © 2020 BY CURTIS SITTENFELD. PUBLISHED BY PERMISSION OF RANDOM HOUSE, AN IMPRINT AND DIVISION OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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