What if Hillary never married Bill Clinton - a new novel by Curtis Sittenfeld asks that question

What would have been Hillary's fate if she hadn't met Bill Clinton. Picture: Shutterstock
What would have been Hillary's fate if she hadn't met Bill Clinton. Picture: Shutterstock
  • Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Doubleday. $32.99.

It could either be the worst or the best pitch for a novel ever, depending on where you stand on speculative fiction.

The life and career of one of the most divisive and high-profile women in American history but - get this - without the husband with whom she will always be indelibly linked.

What if Hillary Clinton hadn't married Bill Clinton?

By the time Curtis Sittenfeld dropped this one on her publisher, she'd written enough high-concept stuff to be given the green light. The American writer had already produced five novels, one of which was a fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush. There's also one about twin sisters who happen to be psychic (Sisterland), a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice (Eligible), and a forensic depiction of life inside a prestigious American boarding school (Prep).

All are precise, careful, detailed depictions of vivid, particular slices of American life. She does interior worlds like no other.

So why not look into the inner life of a woman everyone has heard of, but very few people - apart from close friends and family - could really say they know much about?

Speaking via Skype from her home in Minneapolis - like Canberra, a relatively comfortable setting for social distancing - Sittenfeld says she'd already had the chance to wonder about Clinton's inner life when, during the 2016 US election campaign, she wrote a short story about the Democratic nominee's relationship with the press (The Nominee first appeared Esquire magazine, and later in some editions of her short story collection You Think It, I'll Say It).

"Writing that short story sort of made me use my brain in a different way, where instead of the question being, what do the American people think of Hillary, the question was, what does Hillary think of the American people?" she says.

"And that was actually really interesting and engrossing for me. If I hadn't written that story, I don't know if I would have written this novel, and if she'd won the election, I don't think I would have written this novel, and given what did happen, I would never have written a straightforward novel about the 2016 election."

But when the election finally came around and she, along with millions of others, watched in horror as unforeseen events played out, she had a startling revelation.

"I had this realisation that school children who knew she was running for president literally often did not know that Bill Clinton existed, and it kind of blew my mind, because it made me think about how adults might have evaluated her differently if we also didn't know that Bill Clinton existed," she says.

"So basically, I think it was that realisation falling into place that made me think, that would be an interesting idea for a novel. It would be a way of approaching the election sideways."

Curtis Sittenfeld was intrigued by the idea of Hillary sans Bill. Picture: Supplied

Curtis Sittenfeld was intrigued by the idea of Hillary sans Bill. Picture: Supplied

Rodham opens as a novel based mainly on fact: Hillary Rodham is a precocious student in the 1960s and 70s who struggles to reconcile her forthright personality with meeting the expectations of women of her generation. She meets Bill Clinton at university, and the two fall in love. It's a big, passionate, once-in-a-lifetime affair.

But at some point, Hillary reaches a fork in the road. She doesn't marry Bill; she walks away, and has a different life.

Describing that life would be giving too much away. Suffice to say Sittenfeld's research is meticulous, and everything that happens is entirely plausible; it helps, as an outsider, that American politics and public life often looks entirely improbable anyway.

But Sittenfeld says she originally set out to write something very different, at least in format, and the resulting work is one of the hardest things she's ever done.

"I didn't abandon fact completely...[but] if I had said, ok, Hillary and Bill break up and Hillary becomes an architect, or she becomes a school principal and she never intersects with politics or public life, I think that might have been pretty easy," she says.

"But because I wanted to have her maintain her ties to politics, there was a big element of research, and I did have to think about various public events, how would they be affected or not affected by the Clintons having broken up."

In fact, she'd been pondering Hillary for years before her Democratic run. Back in 2007, while researching her novel about another First Lady, Laura Bush, she read Clinton's biography, Living History.

"Actually, my view shifted then, because I thought to myself, I, like a lot of people, even though I'm a Democrat, have this vaguely negative view of her. And I thought to myself, is that fair?" she says.

"Is it based in fact, and is it really about him, is it about her, is it about rumours that have attached themselves to her, or is it about the way she's really spent her life?

"I still think that a lot of people who are critical of Hillary would have trouble talking about her life in any depth, or her policy efforts."

It's why she hasn't been too worried about how the book will be received. Aside from the fact that publishing the book during a pandemic really puts things in perspective, she has already noticed that the commentary around the novel is more focused on Hillary Clinton, the political figure, than on the woman herself, or even on the fictional creation in Rodham.

"I think that people sometimes feel compelled to express their opinions on her, but actually those opinions I'm not sure have that much to do with Hillary and they certainly don't have that much to do with the novel," she says.

"If anyone says the name 'Hillary Clinton'... there's almost this element of mansplaining, of people saying, 'These are some of this historical aspects of her life', which just makes me laugh, that someone who hasn't read the book would think that maybe they could share some historical aspects of her life that I would be unfamiliar with. I'm sure that some people could, but those people would probably be her close friends and relatives."

This leads me to the most obvious question, and one that never really leaves the reader's mind once you read the first - and quite early and explicit - sex scene between the frisky young Hillary and Bill: will Hillary herself read this book?

Sittenfeld has wondered too, but not too seriously. She assumes that for someone as stratosperically famous as Hillary Clinton, a single novel would do little to rock the boat.

"I suspect that she will not, because I think she's used to being the subject of very intense attention, and she probably has learnt to tune it out," she says.

"It's not like if I wrote a novel about my neighbour - my neighbour would probably feel like that was crazy, she'd feel very curious.

"But Hillary was almost the president, she was the secretary of state. Not to imply that my neighbour has not led a big life, but Hillary has led this extraordinarily big life, so I just think in that context it's not that big a deal."

But surely, I say, she would recognise the book as, if not a love letter, exactly, then something of a tribute?

"If she did read it, I think my best hope would be that some sections might seem uncanny, but there's no doubt in my mind that some sections would just seem ludicrous to her, and laughable in their inaccuracy or their unfaithful relationship to reality," she says.

"But I think that it would be disingenuous of me to say, what would she not love about it!"

This story What if Hillary didn't marry Bill? first appeared on The Canberra Times.