What is the value in alternate history? For most writers, alternate history provides an opportunity to play “what if?” games with the past, to imagine how much different the world would be had events turned out differently. For others, it serves as a sort of literary funhouse mirror that can be used to comment on the world in which we live, in subtle or sometimes not-so-subtle ways. In the hands of a very few authors, however, alternate history can become an acute form of character study, one that can use changes in circumstance as a means to considering questions of who we are as people and the ways in which our lives are shaped by the choices we make.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel is an example of the latter category. In it she offers a fictionalized account of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life, one that is altered from the one we know by her decision to break off her relationship with her soon-to-be husband Bill just after his failed election to Congress in 1974. No longer tied to his fate, Hillary Rodham goes on to forge an independent life of her own as a law school professor, activist, and United States Senator. These changes are chronicled in a narrative centered around three key periods of Rodham’s life: her time with Clinton at Yale and in Arkansas, the point when her political career begins while that of her former lover’s ends, and her climactic bid for the presidency. In each of them, events unfold involving a mix of historical, fictionalized, and fictional characters, with Hillary Rodham at the center of them.
In most works of alternate history, the focus of such a story would be on how a change in one moment transformed the subsequent course of history. In Sittenfeld’s hands, though, her premise becomes a means of providing a new look at a long-known personality. So many of the controversial associations are stripped away: gone is Whitewater, the Rose law firm, the health care plan of her husband’s presidency, and everything that follows. What’s left is the author’s assessment of who Hillary Rodham is as a person and the choices that person might have made free from a decision so pivotal to the arc of her life. Some of what happens is familiar, much of it is not, but all of it is true to that conception. In this respect Sittenfeld manages something extremely difficult to achieve: a fresh take on an ostensibly familiar figure.
Yet this novel isn’t just a reexamination of the Hillary Rodham we think we know. As Bill Clinton once declared, we get two for the price of one, as we see how her decision impacts his fate as well. In the first part of Sittenfeld’s novel, we see Clinton at his most charming, affable, flirtatious, and stimulating. Not only does it define his character, but it helps us to understand what Rodham saw in him as well, as well as why she agreed to become Hillary Clinton. Absent that choice, Bill Clinton’s life undergoes a different trajectory as well, one that illustrates the role she played in his success. Without Hillary, certain aspects of Bill Clinton’s character emerge in ways that define his life very differently from the history people remember, which then goes on to have its own impact on the events described in the novel.
Nevertheless, while Sittenfeld’s commentary on Bill Clinton is oftentimes sharp, her focus never wavers from her protagonist. The result is a novel that gives its readers a discerning meditation of one of the most important figures of modern times, one conveyed through the story of a life that she very well could have lived. In the process, Sittenfeld demonstrates one of the underutilized possibilities of a genre better known for using counterfactuals to consider different outcomes of major events than to better understand controversial personages. I doubt that others will follow her example, though, as her achievement in writing an alternate history novel that is both a perceptive character study and an entertaining work of fiction will be extremely difficult for others to emulate.