“Rodham” by Curtis Sittenfeld; Random House (432 pages; $28)
In her new novel “Rodham,” Minneapolis-based fiction writer Curtis Sittenfeld offers up a tantalizing premise: What would the past couple of decades of American politics have looked like if a young Hillary Rodham had turned down Bill Clinton’s marriage proposal in the early 1970s?
It’s the kind of irresistible “what if?” scenario that’s been known to fuel many a freewheeling, late-night conversation among political junkies.
What if Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey had eked out a win over Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential race? That would have meant no Watergate, which historians generally agree left a lasting dent in Americans’ faith in political institutions.
“Rodham” gets particularly rollicking toward the end as it turns to a 2016 presidential election in which Hillary Rodham, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump all still play significant roles.
It’s not Sittenfeld’s first foray into political fiction: Her 2008 novel “American Wife” imagined the life story of a Laura Bush doppelgänger, which among other tweaks transformed the Bushes of Texas into the Blackwells of Wisconsin.
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t,” Mark Twain famously wrote. Or as Philip Roth lamented in a speech back in 1960: “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Roth went on to make fictional fodder of real political circumstances: He wrote a novel about a thinly veiled Richard Nixon character (“Our Gang”) and another (“The Plot Against America”) that imagined an alternative history in which Minnesota-born aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, plunging the U.S. into an anti-Semitic conflagration.
I won’t spoil the many fun details that give life to Sittenfeld’s alternative political history in “Rodham.” But it doesn’t give away too much to say that she fashions an ending that may in fact be more conventional than what actually happened. After all, who thought even a few short years ago that a flashy real estate tycoon/reality TV host would become president of the United States?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s been reported that Hulu is developing a “Rodham” TV show. That’s appropriate: Pundits have often compared the Trump presidency to a television drama, complete with outlandish characters (think Roger Stone), action-packed set pieces (think Steve Bannon’s yacht arrest) and cliffhangers (think the House vote to impeach Trump at the end of 2019, followed by Senate acquittal in early 2020).
With Election Day now less than two months away, we’re approaching another season (or series?) finale. If it were a novel or streaming drama series, we could skip ahead to the last page or final episode to see what happens.
But it’s real life. So we wait.
©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)