The Badness of Romance

Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham: A Novel

Doubleday, 432pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780857526120

reviewed by Erin McFadyen

If you google ‘romance novel,’ you’ll see that people also ask ‘why are romance novels so bad?’ In Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, a romance of the highest order, Hillary Rodham dumps Bill before his first Senate campaign. Sittenfeld’s Hillary isn’t a factual one, but it’s important to the project of the book that she doesn’t totally transcend the indexical either. Rather, she’s stencilled against both the author’s speculation on history as it didn’t happen, and the tropes of the genre fiction Sittenfeld has built much of her career on. Rodham certainly affirms the badness of romance — but only in the sense that it gestures to the failures of its own prescribed generic fantasies to fully map onto the world as it actually was, and is.

With the subtitle on its cover simply reading ‘A Novel,’ Rodham immediately cues us for a fictional world. How, then, are we to take the question posed immediately beneath this subtitle on the front of Doubleday’s paperback edition: ‘What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?’? The stakes of this question’s counterfactual historical thinking are different, I think, to the stakes of most novels. Maybe it’s useful to formulate fiction as neither true nor false, where the counterfactual’s relationship to truth is more strictly oppositional. Maybe, again, we can oppose the counterfactual’s ‘what if?’ to fiction’s alternative modal premise, the ‘as if.’

The novel begins as it will continue for its first half, with an imaginative colouring-in of historical events. Sittenfeld’s prologue is an instructive character study, in which a young, astute, and remarkably self-assured Hillary reflects on the speech she gave at her Wellesley College graduation. In 1969, Hillary — who was herself, as an undergraduate, a ‘Goldwater Girl’ and active Republican — rebuked the anti-protest sentiment of the Republican Senator Edward Brooke whose speech immediately preceded hers. We can’t know how the historical Hillary felt about giving this speech, at the time. In a way that feels plausible to public vision, Sittenfeld imagines her confident, but presciently aware of the challenges that await her in her political career: ‘I always had prepared, and I always knew I could do it. Thus the feeling was a sense of my own competence blended with the knowledge that I was about to pull off a feat most people thought, correctly or not, that they couldn’t. And this knowledge contributed to the final aspect of the feeling, which was loneliness — the loneliness of being good at something.’

From Wellesley, Sittenfeld follows Hillary to Yale Law School, changing the names of significant colleagues and mentors while leaving the basic infrastructure of the historical record intact: Hillary works on cases in family law under the mentorship of a woman colour, performs brilliantly in class, meets Bill and moves with him to Arkansas. This arrangement allows Sittenfeld to explore the foundations of Hillary’s particular brand of more-women-CEOs feminism — as well as her vexed positions on questions of race and class — in more inquisitive, speculative terms than an historical account might have allowed. It also allows Sittenfeld to write Hillary as a young person, coming to terms with what it is to be a woman both in politics and in love.

Much of the gap between Sittenfeld’s and history’s characterisations of Hillary in this early section of the novel is shaped by the codes of genre fiction which structure the story. Rodham leans unabashedly into the codes of the romance novel, as well as the coming-of-age-tale. Works in these categories take on questions of desire, women’s sociality, and, especially, what happens when desire meets or is confronted by this sociality. These are instructive as far as how codes and expectations undergird the lives of young women who might describe themselves as our fictive Hillary does: ‘a hardworking and not beautiful Midwestern girl.’

In this Hillary, already, we have a protagonist of the kind we’re familiar with from travels through the catalogue of romance: clever, anxious and unsure yet of herself, assuming herself exempt from the attention of boys in her class. Here, for example, is Sittenfeld’s Hillary, on sex with Bill: ‘And then I could feel the nudging of Bill’s erection, it was probably going to happen, then it was definitely going to happen, he was entering me, and I gasped — I gasped both because it felt so incredibly good and because I couldn’t believe I was naked with this man.’ It’s important that we read these blushing accounts of desire in Rodham not only because they cue us to think about the gap —not fully knowable — between the historical and the novelistic Hillary. It’s important also because they specify the novelistic Hillary as a vehicle for the exploration of the fantasies that the definitive works of the genre fiction Sittenfeld partakes of also investigate: the fantasy of young, feminine sexuality, the fantasy of young, feminine exceptionalism, the fantasy of somebody saying to you, as Bill does to Hillary: ‘I mean it. Your whole body is perfect, and you have such a pretty face, your eyes and lips and your skin.’

As Sittenfeld reaches the fork in the road between fact and speculation, she has her Hillary give Bill the flick, and follows the path of what wasn’t. In these later chapters, we see Hillary through a professional life as a legal academic and into a campaign for the Presidency — against Bill as an opposing Democratic candidate. The difficulty of Hillary’s femininity is brought to the boil in these late, counterfactual sections of the novel. The trouble, mainly, is in her unabashed professional ambition, which eclipses the questions of marriage and motherhood (cf. ‘the loneliness of being good at something’) and is found unbecoming by opponents and much of the public.

Sittenfeld depicts the storm awaiting a woman who wears the full extent of her expertise, as well as the full ambivalence of both her desires and her mistakes, on her sleeve, and asks to be respected for it. This picture borrows as much from Hillary’s actual reception as First Lady, Secretary of State, and Presidential candidate as it does from the Austen women — think self-assured Emma or wilful Lizzie Bennett — that Sittenfeld has taken as more or less explicit templates for her characters throughout her oeuvre. This condition narrows the gap between history-as-it-wasn’t, history-as-it-was, and novel-as-it-is. In so doing, it also narrows the gap between the propositions of Sittenfeld’s genre fiction — that the things you fantasise about might indeed happen, that some people really are special, that hope is never ill-advised and that stories progress towards good endings despite bumps in the road — and the diagnostic, critical affect of the counterfactual as applied to late-twentieth century white feminism.

To read Sittenfeld’s version of Hillary’s 2016 Presidential campaign, is to read counterfactually. It’s to think analytically about the particular breeds of misogyny, disenfranchisement, or deep institutional corruption that led the 2016 election down the path it actually took rather than a possible better alternative. Importantly, though, it’s also to read in the mode of Sittenfeld’s genre fiction, leaning in to another kind of fantasy-fulfilment: a romance between ourselves as political subjects and the democratic system we’re being asked to imagine still loves us back. Sittenfeld does let us imagine just this — a world in which Trump’s tax fraud actually matters, in which a history of sexual assault seriously harms a candidate’s campaign, and in which Hillary might have been able to say, without fear of vilification: ‘I consider the range and depth of not just my friendships but also my many work relationships to be one of the great gifts of my life. . .’ In this sense, Rodham takes on in its closing movements the tenor of a tragedy; a tragedy which relies both on our investments in the promises of its generic-fictive world, and on the very unreality of those fantastical propositions.

Certainly this year’s election has felt like an unreality of its own, as the narrowness of Biden’s win has shown the fear, distrust, and anger at the heart of Trumpism to be alive and well. In this context it can feel both remedial and cruel to entertain Sittenfeld’s fantasy of a different history. I hope, though, that it might also be genuinely useful to think in the unique way that Rodham’s liminal form allows, holding on to the sharp criticality of the ‘what if’ while indulging the hope of the ‘as if.’ In this way, the novel’s flavours of genre fiction are integral to the intellectual, and even political, work that it asks us to do.

Particularly in light of Kamala Harris’s ascent into office, we could turn this kind of thinking on to the question of our inheritance from Hillary’s feminism, which is at the heart of Rodham. This feminism rang clear to me in Harris’s acceptance speech: ‘While I may be the first woman in office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.’ Sittenfeld’s Hillary, aspiring resolutely to office and quietly disparaging women who fight for other equalities and justices, also seems to see the ‘possibilities’ opened up by her politics as exclusively professional, white-focused, and focused on competing with the kind of power structure created and institutionalised by men. It’s certainly an historic, significant, and affecting thing to see a woman, and especially a woman of colour, assume the office of vice president. But the possibilities offered by a contemporary, intersectional feminism — its ‘what if’s and ‘as if’s — have to be richer and broader than this.

Rodham’s counterfactual splitting of career-Hillary from familial-romantic-sexual-Hillary leans into its protagonist’s status as a professional, capitalist icon. In this sense, the fantasies at its core, and which it lets play out to their logical end, are deeply bound up in a monolithic middle class, white feminist set of aspirations. In her acknowledgement of Hillary’s ambivalent stance on race, especially, Sittenfeld shows she’s aware of this, and thinking critically about it, but the novel ultimately remains caught up in this troubling romance of power.
Erin McFadyen is a writer and educator based between Sydney and the UK. She recently completed an MPhil in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Cambridge, and her work can be found in publications including Running Dog, Art & Australia, Sudo Journal and Artist Profile, where she is currently Principal Writer.