Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (historical / speculative fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 (well written but I don’t like them) Plot: 3.5/5

An alternate history — what would Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life be like if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton. It certainly had its interesting points, but overall I was not a fan. If you ever had a positive thought about Clinton (Bill) before, you won’t after reading this (remember it’s fictional!) book. In this book, Bill is charismatic, intelligent, but ultimately unprincipled and an egotistical sexual predator full stop. Lots of sex scenes in the first part of the book — I guess to explain why / how Hillary fell in love with him to begin with — but the white powerful all-bad male trope pervaded the pages. While Bill’s womanizing would not be something I would enjoy in a husband, the real Hillary got to make her own decisions, frame her own life and choose to stay with her husband (who very much supported her career throughout his own). The fact that many women (Sittenfeld obviously included) decided she was wrong to do this — what business is it of theirs? This (obviously) irked me.

Lots of political strategy and maneuvering which isn’t my thing (but if it’s your thing you might enjoy this!). The best part for me was a very realistic reminder of what life was like for strong, smart women who were born just fifteen years before I was. I had it so much better, and my daughter lives in what feels like a completely different world. The book also served as a sad (to me) reminder of what the population seems to value in a candidate — charisma, good looks, etc. The high school popularity contest continues unabated…

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

A retelling of Austen’s popular Pride and Prejudice: Sittenfeld did a masterful job at “modernizing” the characters while keeping their essential personalities and issues intact. (As a quick recap, one could summarize P & P as about a family with five daughters that tries to marry them off, although the book is much more interesting than that). Jane, the eldest, at 40 is trying to have a baby via artificial insemination, while Liz (#2) has been dating a married man, having been led on for decades. While Jane and Liz both live in Manhattan, they are home in Cincinnati to help care for their father who is recovering from a heart attack. It is from this setup that they meet newly local doctors Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. What follows is hysterically funny and completely engaging, including Reality TV shows, tech millionaires, Atherton estates, and — wait for it — a trans husband. My absolutely favorite part, though, oddly enough, is Mr. Bennet with his ROFL sardonic one liners.

Sittenfeld is a seriously good writer. While this review may make this sound like a light weight beach read, it really goes much deeper than that — full of the insight, reflection, and social commentary featured in the original. I guess I’m going to have get over my prejudice against modernizations because this was hilarious, fun, and a good piece of literature. Put me in a great mood for the New Year.

Quotes:
“There’s a belief that to take care of someone else, or to let someone else take care of you — that both are inherently unfeminist. I don’t agree. There’s no shame in devoting yourself to another person, as long as he devotes himself to you in return.”

“The truth, however, was that he did not seem egomaniacal to her; he seemed principled and thoughtful, and she felt a vague embarrassment that she worked for a magazine that recommended anti-aging creams to women in their twenties and he helped people who’d experienced brain trauma.”

“At the table, Caroline was on Darcy’s other side and had spent most of the meal curled toward him in conversation like a poisonous weed.”

“Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care.”

“‘Fred’, the nurse said, though they had never met. ‘How are we today?’ Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, ‘Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?’”

It occurred to Liz one day, as she waited on hold for an estimate from a yard service, that her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could not longer see, touch, or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he — they — had grown weary and inflexible.”

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (literary fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

An extremely well-written novel based on the life of Laura Bush. Alice Lindgren (the names have been changed to emphasize the fictional nature of the story) has been an inveterate reader since childhood (my kind of girl!). The story takes us from a relatively normal childhood to working as a librarian to meeting Charlie Blackwell (George W Bush) to becoming the First Lady and enduring the ensuing celebrity.

Each of the four sections in the book is based on a real life event in Laura’s life (accidentally killing a classmate in a terrible car accident; George drinking heavily and then becoming religious, etc.) but everything else is purely fictional. Sittenfeld’s aim is to explore what it is like to “lead a life in opposition to itself” based on the liberal tendencies of Laura Bush as compared with her ultra conservative leader-of-the-free-world husband. As far as I can tell, this liberality is deduced from Laura’s (non-elaborated) support for gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose (abortion) along with a smattering of donations to liberal style causes (soup kitchens, etc). (Spoiler alert) Sittenfeld went a step further (too far IMHO) by giving the fictional Alice a gay grandmother and an abortion. I guess the author felt Alice needed personal reasons to support those more liberal policy decisions — which is a shame as I like to feel that people can have political opinions that aren’t necessarily based on their own needs and experiences.

I found the story gripping — I had a paperback with small print (difficult for me to read) and I still couldn’t put it down, reading late into the night. Alice is a delightfully introspective character and her internal commentary and ponderings brought her life into full perspective for the readers. At the same time, I really dislike fictionalized history — regardless of the careful name changing and outright statements of FICTION FICTION FICTION, it is hard (impossible) to leave this book without a strong idea of what these people were like, despite the fact that the characterizations were a complete fabrication on the part of the author. While “Alice” comes off as a sympathetic and engaging character, “Charlie” comes off as a complete buffoon. I’m no George Bush fan, but this doesn’t really seem like a full and complete portrayal of a man!

Some sample quotes:
“This is our implicit agreement, that we can suggest or recommend but that we never force, never make ultimatums. It’s why we don’t resent each other.”

“I’ve thought often since Charlie became governor that it isn’t a surprise so many famous people seem mentally unstable. As their celebrity grows and they’re increasingly deferred to and accommodated, they can believe one of two things: either that they’re deserving, in which case they will become unreasonable and insufferable; or that they’re not deserving, in which case they will be wracked with doubt, plagued by a sense of themselves as imposters.”

“I had the fleeting thought then that we are each of us pathetic in one way or another, and the trick is to marry a person whose patheticness you can tolerate”

“He had told me I had a strong sense of myself, but I wondered then if the opposite was true — if what he took for strength was really a bending sort of accomadation to his ways, if what he saw when he looked at me was the reflection of his own will and personality.”