A guide on where to start with Curtis Sittenfeld's books

Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Read any review of Curtis Sittenfeld's books and they'll be full of praise for how acutely the author captures the lives of women, whether her characters are teenagers or presidential candidates.

She began her publishing career with a book set in an elite boarding school, and since then has gone on to write about small-town life, and big-town dreams.

With Rodham – which imagines what would have happened if Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton – it's been hard to miss Sittenfeld in 2020. But never fear, if you devoured and loved her newest novel and are now feeling bereft, we have good news: there are plenty of other books by Sittenfeld you can sink your teeth into. 

Here's what we recommend. 

You Think It, I'll Say It (2018)

Sittenfeld's first short story collection, You Think It, I'll Say It, focuses on tales of women from varying backgrounds who get tangled up in tense situations.

Its opening story, 'The Nominee', is a meditation by a presidential candidate on her relationship through the years with a female reporter. Although she's never named, it's clear that the character is modelled on Hillary Clinton, and is so well-formed that it's unsurprising Sittenfeld went on to write Rodham.

If you want to get a taste of Sittenfeld's work, this is the perfect book to read. 

American Wife (2009)

In some ways, American Wife can be described as a forerunner to Rodham, although it's a very different book inspired by a very different First Lady: Laura Bush.

Sittenfeld's third novel – written in the style of a memoir – follows Alice Blackwell, a quiet and bookish woman who never dreamed of being First Lady. And she definitely didn't imagine it would be to a president whose politics she doesn't believe in. At one point, she poignantly thinks: "During the periods when I've been the most frustrated by our lives, or by what is happening in this country, I've looked outside at the cars and pedestrians our motorcades pass and I've thought, All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power."

We accompany Alice on the most important day of her husband Charlie's career, as she looks back on her path to the White House, and at a secret she carries that could jeopardise the presidency.

Like Sittenfeld's best writing, this is a novel less about dramatic things happening, and more about how people operate, the lies we tell ourselves, and the clash between our private and public selves. 

Prep (2005)

Teenagers can be both extremely vulnerable and terrifically cruel, and both sides – and more – are on display in Sittenfeld's debut novel Prep.

When 14-year-old Lee Fiora lands a scholarship at exclusive boarding school Ault, she imagines the months ahead of her will be filled with handsome boys in sweaters, girls playing sport on pristine fields, and old brick buildings in leafy settings. But the reality for Lee, a shy girl from small-town Indiana, is very different, and she's forced to navigate a minefield of social rules and rituals to find her place in the pecking order.

Hauntingly accurate in its depiction of what it's like to be a teenage girl – full of sharply observed scenes you’ll never forget and that will make you happy you're no longer a teenager – Prep is also a study in social class and what we do to fit in.

The Man of My Dreams (2006)

The Man of My Dreams opens with 14-year-old Hannah, whose obsession with the seemingly perfect love lives of celebrities plays out against the crumbling of her parents' marriage.

Like Lee in Prep, Hannah is shy, hapless and trying to figure out the world around her. We accompany Hannah through major life events, including going to college, her first love affair and her first job.

As she tries to figure out whether it's brave or pathetic to move states for a man who might not love you back, or whether settling for someone who's not your soulmate is realistic or defeatist, Hannah speaks to all of us who have ever doubted our own instincts and feelings.

The New York Times said The Man of My Dreams "reads mostly like a comic novel; Sittenfeld circles Hannah, laughing at her, sympathising with her, even judging her". And it's that combination of sympathy and judgement that makes The Man of My Dreams such an appealing and astute novel.

Sisterland (2013)

Kate is a devoted wife and mother, living in the suburbs and raising her two children. Her twin sister Violet, who is single, lives a more eccentric life. From the opening pages of Sisterland, in which the siblings share a meal at a restaurant, it's clear that their relationship is fraught.

We soon learn that, despite their differences, the twins share a hidden gift. When, aged 13, Kate inadvertently revealed their secret, their lives were set on diverging paths.

As adults, they tangle again when Violet predicts a major earthquake in the St Louis area where they live, and ignites a media storm. As the day Violet has announced for the earthquake draws closer, Kate must attempt to repair her relationship with her sister, and face up to some truths she has long denied.

Sisterland – which takes its name from the plaque on Violet and Kate's childhood bedroom's door – might seem to have an ethereal element to it. But in Sittenfeld's deft hands, the fantastical plotline isn't a big deal; she writes in such a way that the twins' powers seem more like enhanced senses than something otherworldly. Sisterland, at its core, is really a story about family, trust and betrayal.

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