Let’s get it out of the way: There’s a lot of sex in Rodham, mostly in the novel’s first third, when Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton are twentysomethings deciding whether to get married or call it. The sex scenes are both startling and pedestrian, frank and prim. They’re titillating, like celebrity gossip, and excruciating, like walking in on your parents. They’re entertaining, obviously, and even intentionally comic. Bill plays “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the sax, naked. He makes her climax while she’s in the passenger’s seat on the road to Fayetteville, and she says, “I don’t think I should do anything while you’re driving. But when we’re home, I really, really want to make you feel as good as you make me feel.” It’s the kind of soft-porn flatness that somehow bends all the way back into corn-fed innocence. The narration is so stilted, so dorky, it inspires fondness: Hillary the late bloomer, the nerd asked to prom by the jock. In bed together, she thinks, “with a kind of granular precision, of the unlikely sequence of events that had made our lives intersect.”
This all has to be said, because physical chemistry is key to Curtis Sittenfeld’s whole theory of Hillary Rodham and what made her fall for a cheating narcissist like Bill Clinton. But their romance can’t be played only for laughs—it’s got to feel like a live wire, throwing off a dangerous spark. Otherwise, the arc of Hillary’s political destiny, as imagined in Rodham, will lack tension. And otherwise, it would be hard to forgive the real-life Hillary, to understand her as basically admirable were it not for her central sin: falling in love.