The Sorrows of Young Hillary

Question: which American president and first lady would you care to imagine having intercourse? If that provokes a shudder, be assured that the sex scenes between Yale law students Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton in Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel are cringe-free — even the one involving manual stimulation that takes place in a moving car. They’re young, they’re in love, it’s adorable. For Hillary, who has ruefully accepted that a fierce intellect is a drawback when it comes to dating, the leonine charmer from Arkansas is a gift dropped from heaven. Until he isn’t.

A stumbling first paragraph sounds a warning about the limitations and non-literary quality of Hillary’s first-person narration. Fortunately, Sittenfeld is a great stylist and moves on quickly to a voice that’s plain yet pained, subdued yet supple, with unexpressed depths beneath the surface. Hillary has grown a carapace of indifference to male disdain, thanks to her father’s constant jibes. Without being a devastating wit, she always has a comeback; when he wishes aloud that a political rival was his daughter instead of her, she bats back ‘So do I’. The hurt remains implicit.

Just when you might be wondering what the point of a novel based on real and living people might be, Sittenfeld begins to rewrite history. This is a Hillary who, after a few attempts at ‘strategizing’ her boyfriend’s sex drive, cannot in the end countenance his compulsive womanizing. Their paths diverge. Hillary presses on with her political ambitions, and Sittenfeld devises a surprising alternative career path for Bill (one I didn’t quite buy), until they meet again during the race for the Democratic nomination for presidential candidate.

It’s an ingenious yet plausible glimpse of an alternative reality, and so involving that it occasionally comes as a shock to realize that there is a different reality, and we are living in it. Readers who are up to speed with the minutiae of American politics could take a deep dive, matching the text diligently against the facts, noting who’s real and what never happened, and admiring Sittenfeld’s skill. Everyone else could just try to read it as a novel, albeit one where moments, such as Hillary’s early preference for trousers to skirts, act as a sharp elbow nudge.

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