I wish I’d read this when I’d grown up, it would have answered so many questions!
I’m a big Curtis Sittenfeld fan. I started with “Prep.” I went to public school, but in college 45% of the students had come from prep schools. They were different. And you can’t explain them to people who didn’t experience them. The confidence, the laissez-faire attitude. They were polite on the outside and limit-testers on the inside. They seemed to be born to this station, whereas in public high school we grade-grubbed and competed and opened our college acceptance letters breathlessly.
But not every Sittenfeld book resonated. And I’ll be honest, the fact that she called herself “Curtis” bugged me. Her real name was “Elizabeth.” I had a hard time believing she’d grown up as “Curtis,” then again at Middlebury those prep school kids oftentimes had family names that were not their first, or first names that were not de rigueur, that in fact I’d never heard in the suburbs. Like “Tucker.” And “Brooke.” They’ve filtered down to the hoi polloi today, but they were nonexistent in the middle class of yore.
But I wasn’t interested in everything Sittenfeld wrote. Especially “American Wife,” the Laura Bush story without Laura Bush. As for her latest novel, “Rodham,” a reimagination of Hillary’s story…why? It seemed like an exercise to me. I mean Hillary had lived one life, wasn’t that enough?
But in the back of my mind I remembered “You Think It, I’ll Say It.” The best book I read in 2018, even though some of it had been published earlier, even though it was a short story collection.
I remember short stories from freshman English, in high school. There was a thick paperback, we read it first term. But short stories get a bad rap. Real writers write complete novels, right? And under the best of circumstances short stories end and you’re left hanging, you want more but there is none.
But “You Think It, I’ll Say It”… Sure, you might be left hanging, but you’d want to dive right into the next story, for the adventure.
As for her latest book, this year’s “Rodham,” it seemed like “American Wife II,” I had no need and no desire.
But then I got an e-mail from Deborah Holland.
She was the singer/songwriter of Animal Logic, a trio with Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke. This was after the Police broke up, as for Clarke he had a stellar reputation, Animal Logic struck you on the surface.
And then there was a track, “There’s a Spy (In the House of Love).” This was 1989. And the track got MTV play, more than lunar rotation. And the chorus was indelible, you heard it once and not only did you know it, you needed to hear it again.
But that was Animal Logic’s only success. After a second LP the band broke up and Deborah Holland disappeared, but she reappeared as part of the Refugees, a trio with Wendy Waldman and Cindy Bullens. She always seemed standoffish to me, but then the group’s efforts became sporadic and Deborah moved to Vancouver and I’d start to hear from her intermittently. Always about some aspect of art. Deborah told me to read “Rodham,” that she and her friends loved it.
Hmm… I trusted Deborah’s recommendation, based on prior e-mail, but like I said, I was not interested in this book. I downloaded the sample chapter and started but then I got sidetracked with something else and never went back.
Until last night.
I finished Sue Miller’s “Monogamy.” And it wasn’t good enough. Which made me crazy. Because reviews were stellar. I was hanging in there and if anything at the end I was disappointed, even though some of the plot twists were unexpected and made the book better.
Now I needed something new.
Oh, I could have buried myself in work, but what work would that be?
I’d been driving in my car for my annual physical and I’d heard Amy Coney Barrett and gotten depressed. They could have asked her if she was a woman and she would have said she did not have enough information and she’d have to wait until the legal question came up. I felt I needed to write something, I even had a title, “The Tyranny of the Minority,” but by time I emerged from Mitch’s office I wasn’t in the same mood, conversation with him and his staff had lit that inner flame, and it was growing, and I only write from the mood I’m in, I never fake it.
And then last night on Bill Maher he said everything I’d thought, and I chided myself, why had I been so afraid to lay my words down? Turns out I was not the only one who was depressed, not the only one lamenting the tyranny of the minority, then again I hadn’t been in the mood.
So now I’m coursing through all the sample chapters I’ve downloaded, and nothing is resonating. It’s close to midnight and I’m looking for that writing that cuts like butter, that requires no effort, that is not laden with description, that is not written for critics, for a literary judge and jury, and I’m not finding it.
And after exhausting all the possibilities, I find that sample of “Rodham” on my Kindle, and I wonder…IS IT AVAILABLE ON LIBBY?
I’ve got no crusade. Used to be to have all the music available to all for one low price per month, that came to be. Now what? Well, the evolution from physical to digital books. But persuading a reader of physical that digital is superior is like trying to convert a Trump voter to Biden.
I recently read a physical book. The type was infinitesimal. This is not an issue on a Kindle, I’d have blown it up, changed the setting.
And in this Covid-19 era why would you want to go to a library, why would you want to go anywhere unless it was necessary?
Which led me to Libby, the public library app. I was a naysayer, now I’m not. That’s where I got “Mrs. Everything,” but the newest Jennifer Weiner books were not available for months. But I’d reserved “Monogamy” and it ultimately was free, what about “Rodham”?
I could get it for seven days. Right now. I downloaded it to my Kindle, just that fast. Isn’t this what we’re trying to do, isn’t this the essence of the last two and a half decades, reducing friction?
And then I started to read it.
I’m not a student of Hillary, nor Bill. I know the highlights, but their story is in black and white, not color, at least until Bill runs for president.
But in “Rodham”…
Now I don’t know how much of “Rodham” is true. I mean were these really Hillary’s friends, did she have any of these experiences in real life?
But it does not matter.
Because this isn’t so much about Hillary the person, but Hillary the character.
What’s it like to be the smartest girl in the school? What’s it like to stand up for yourself? What’s it like to poke the bear?
Most people don’t. Now, more than ever, people want to fit in. But even back then, you stood out at your peril. You were labeled. You were just being yourself, but you were laughed at.
So, Hillary stands up to sexism and this is at the bleeding edge of the women’s movement. We’ve still got a long way to go, today men are aware of the issue, but in many cases they just remain silent, there’s a hidden code that we still do it but we just don’t talk about it publicly. But back then? Men assumed that women should be seen, not heard.
There were very few women at Yale Law School.
But what intrigued me most about “Rodham” was the relationships, the dreamed-to-be and those that were real.
Hillary has a rapport with Bruce. They talk every Monday. She finally decides to take a chance, she gives him a note, saying she’d like to be his girlfriend.
And then she hears nothing.
Mostly I laugh when I think back at high school. It’s a cliché, what you thought was important was not. But then reading “Rodham” I’m brought back and…these were truly serious moments.
There’s a school vacation. Hillary hears nothing. And when she finally encounters Bruce back in school, he says nothing. She’s dying inside, she finally brings it up. No, it turns out Bruce is into somebody else, WHO HE’S ONLY TALKED TO ONCE!!
And Hillary continues to have rapport with men who reject her. They’ve got a mind meld. She broaches the relationship issue and time and time again they just don’t see her that way, sometimes they just see her as one of the guys.
SO WHAT’S A GIRL TO DO?
Her Wellesley roommates tell her to show some skin, to shut up.
But Hillary wants someone who loves her for her brain. But then she realizes this just doesn’t happen, men go for the physical first, and she’s not high enough on the food chain, she’s not desirable enough for the men she’s interested in to be interested in her. She’s not good-looking enough to be involved with a good-looking man.
And then Bill Clinton comes along.
She sees him across the way, months before they ultimately interact.
You know… Maybe you locked eyes once. And to you it means everything, but did it really mean anything?
And when Bill ultimately approaches Hillary she’s not quite sure how to handle it. Is he just another friend? She’s not in his league, she’s gun-shy. But then Bill says she’s the smartest girl at Yale Law School and he just had to meet her. And a love relationship ensues.
Bill is comfortable in his body.
But Hillary… Actually, she’s had sex, she’s not a complete nerd, but she’s completely flummoxed, why would Bill be interested in HER?
And Bill has big appetites and big desires.
And they do go to Yale and both of them are working the connections, connections the average person is unaware of, never mind able to utilize.
And now I’m feeling inadequate.
But then Hillary is working for Legal Aid and she’s drafting and I’m telling myself there’s no way I want to do that, I’m not interested, and there are things I’m interested in.
I never got higher education. I mean was there anyone who was truly interested in what they studied? Not me. The best part of college was hanging out, and going skiing.
Skiing. That’s why I went to Middlebury, it had its own ski area, I could ski every day, talk about a thrill! And I did. Well, at least during January term, in the spring it was more difficult sometimes, I did have to do some school work.
And the truth is that is what I still do today, ski, so maybe that was the right path.
But I never fit in, I never took the path, it never seemed reasonable to me. I don’t know whether it seemed reasonable to everyone else, or they were indoctrinated into doing what they were told.
And unlike Yale Law, unlike Wellesley, the people I went to college with did not set the world on fire. Sure, it was a different era, pre-tech, pre-entrepreneurship, but what if I’d decided to go to an Ivy instead, I had the chance, would it have played out differently?
But then I wouldn’t have been able to ski every day.
And I couldn’t go to concerts at Middlebury, although we did venture to New York and Boston every once in a while for a big show, like Bowie and Dylan, but I could listen to the same records as those who went to UCLA.
So, on one hand I feel different, certainly from all the people I went to college with. On the other, I’ve found like-minded people in music, but although there’s still a music business, it resembles the pre-Beatle era, all pop all the time, it’s business, it’s not driving the soul of the country.
And even the biggest artists don’t make a difference. Demi Lovato and the Lincoln Project? Here today, gone tomorrow. And are we really ready to listen to Demi Lovato tell us what to do, of all the people, all the artists in the world?
So on one hand I’m lost.
And then I read “Rodham” and I’m found.
I’m only ten percent in, but I’m stunned, that someone is on my page, someone has had my experiences, Sittenfeld must have to have written this book.
WHERE WERE THESE PEOPLE WHEN I WAS GROWING UP?
It’s not like my father taught me how to be a man, at least not sexually.
And today you can find like-minded people on the internet, but back then you were locked up in your own little world, dreaming, holding on for something better. Talk about depressing…
Knowing Sittenfeld “Rodham” will never get off course, it will ultimately deliver. Will it be as good as this initial 10%? Possibly not.
But I don’t want to keep on reading, I want to savor every page. It’s like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s like listening to Supertramp’s “Crime of the Century.” You think you’re the only one, and then you’re not.
“There’s a Spy (In the House of Love)”: