The Novelist As Biographer

The most exciting publishing news we’ve seen this spring is that Curtis Sittenfeld has a new novel coming this spring, a followup to her smart and compelling American Wife, which got deep into the mind and character of former first lady Laura Bush (and which remains the best thing we’ve read on the complicated dynamics of the Bush family).

According to Bookseller, Sittenfeld’s sixth book is Rodham:

‘Rodham imagines the life of a young woman full of promise, Hillary Rodham, who meets a charismatic fellow Yale Law School student named Bill Clinton,’ reads the synopsis. ‘The two find a profound intellectual, emotional, and physical connection that neither has previously experienced. In the novel, as she did in real life, Hillary turns down numerous marriage proposals from Bill. But in Rodham, their paths diverge when Hillary turns him down once and for all.’

Says Sittenfeld: ‘There were countless pieces analysing Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election, and I found myself thinking not about how she looks to all of us, but how all of us look to her. Instead of examining her from the outside and determining what she means, I approached this novel with the question, What is it like to be her?’

We generally don’t write about fiction in this newsletter but Sittenfeld is a prime example of where novelistic talent can get a reader nearer a subject than the usual biographical method of sticking to verifiable fact. There are the usual caveats—it’s imagination not reality—but it’s nonetheless edifying, not to mention entertaining.

An interesting choice by Doubleday to release this novel in the teeth of an election season dominated by individuals other than the Clintons. Will there be room for such a book as everyone scrambles to catch up to the new personalities on the scene? Would it have been better to wait for a 2021 release? We think so, but if the book is strong enough (and we’re optimistic), it won’t matter.

Another biographical novel due next month is The Mirror and the Light, the third volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy (the first two being Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize, and Bring Up the Bodies). This one covers the last four years of Cromwell’s life and, presumably, his execution.

James Wood wrote of Mantel’s historical fiction books: “She knows what to select, how to make her scenes vivid, how to kindle her characters. She seems almost incapable of abstraction or fraudulence; she instinctively grabs for the reachably real.”

Wood’s essay on Mantel is not only a great introduction to her work but an interesting discussion of the art of historical fiction. You can read it here.

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