This fictionalized memoir of ‘what-if Hillary had never married Bill?’ (suggested subtitle – ‘The Road Not Taken’) delivers a solid story plush with insights into relationship dynamics, period mores and gender roles, definitions of success and failure and the perilous choices every life entails.
Sittenfeld’s Hillary (HR, as opposed to the real-world’s HRC) is certainly based on what is known about the real one; her Bill upon some of what we know and a lot of what is widely suspected or believed but not so firmly-fixed. As to the surrounding politics, she builds both on what has actually happened and on her speculations about what would have happened if the butterfly had beat her wings a little differently. Less solid ground there, of course, but plenty credible enough to make for an engaging journey.
Most potent to this reader, is how the novel explains by counterexample, holding up a mirror to reality. Her portrayal of a woman refusing to yield to and protect a philanderer, despite their tremendous attraction and suitability to one another, stands in stark contrast to the prevailing wisdom that HRC stayed with Clinton out of faith in his potential to do good as a leader. In so doing, she did protect his image enough to make his Presidency possible (along with a lot of other events, some not so savory) but also diminished her own potential. In that sense, even though the tale ends with the fictional HR succeeding, the novel carries the weight of tragedy.
That the real Hillary’s choice was a direct consequence of traditional gender roles which – though we may hope them quaint and outdated today, totally permeated the atmosphere she grew up breathing – is the warp and woof of this fabrication. It is the context for perhaps the most potent theme and conclusion Sittenfeld offers us: that if, in fact, HR had renounced BC and gone on to become POTUS herself instead of him, so much more might have changed in the hopes and futures of so many women in the years since. Not to mention avoiding the entire Lewinski affair, and the lasting stain it inflicted upon the entire ‘liberal’ or progressive culture.
‘What if,’ indeed.
Or better yet, ‘if only….’