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book review

Hillary Clinton’s memoir alternates between personal reflection, an analysis of the forces at play in Donald Trump’s rise and a rehashing of her campaign platform.CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters

The title of Hillary Rodham Clinton's hot-off-the-presses memoir, What Happened, is rendered on the cover in all caps, no further explanatory subtitle necessary. No punctuating question mark, either. In the days and weeks following Donald Trump's Nov. 8, 2016, presidential election victory, that question, "What happened?," was chewed over and over and over again. The press, pundits and political insiders floated multiple theories – variously crediting Clinton's loss to angry and alienated white voters, overbullish pollsters, bitter Bernie bros, James Comey, Julian Assange, Vladimir Putin, fake news on Facebook, the mushrooming alt-right and the whims of the electoral college.

What Happened is Clinton's attempt to answer the question herself, to offer her take on the events that led to most consequential political upset in recent American history and to reveal her perspective from the centre of it all. And surely, if anyone has earned a right to reckon with the 2016 election, it's the tough, deeply experienced woman who took the blows, who heard crowds chant "Lock her up!," who was stalked around a debate stage by Trump and who watched her dreams collapse on election night in her loss to a racist, misogynist, dangerously unqualified man. In the months since the election, however, the consensus has calcified against her, with many directing the blame at the candidate herself: She was too secretive, too entitled, too mainstream; she was in the pocket of Wall Street, she blew the ground game in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, she played identity politics; her message was uninspired and unfocused; she was too dull, too shrill, too old. And let's never forget: her e-mails.

And so, when excerpts of her book began to leak over the past few weeks, her detractors rolled their collective eyes. "Was this book necessary?" asked a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "We need to move on," said Democratic senator Al Franken (who is currently on a book tour of his own). "Let's not keep arguing about 2016," advised Clinton's primary opponent, Bernie Sanders.

This pre-emptive strike says a great deal about what it means to be a woman in politics, in particular a woman named Hillary Clinton. Her critics are so begrudging and so viscerally irked by her that, less a year after the election, they've decided that the first American woman to be a presidential nominee for a major political party, a woman who served as a senator and secretary of state and a woman who, it bears repeating, won the popular vote by the widest margin of any losing candidate in U.S. presidential election history, has nothing meaningful, or of value, to add to the discussion.

Well, the Hillary haters are missing out, because What Happened is a candid, searching memoir, both furious and funny. Clinton makes no claim that hers is the definitive account of the 2016 presidential race. "That's not for me to write," she says. "I have too little distance and too great a stake in it." Instead, she alternates between personal reflection, an analysis of the forces at play in Trump's rise and, least interestingly, a rehashing of her campaign platform. (There is also a lengthy chapter devoted to her e-mails – damn it, if she isn't going to try to get the final word on that one.) The prose can be stiff, and at times it reads as if she's still referring to her campaign talking points, but she's also self-aware and slyly funny. Recalling George W. Bush suggesting at the inauguration that they go out for burgers, she writes, "I think that's Texan for I feel your pain."

Policy wonk Hillary is familiar to the point of cliché. The best parts of the book are the most intimate, revealing the private, emotional side of a woman who's long been portrayed as a square and a stiff. Opening her memoir on inauguration day – where she steels herself with the mantra "Breathe out. Scream later" – and the first brutal weeks following her loss, she gives a raw account of her grief and self-recrimination. About thanking her supporters following her Nov. 9 concession speech, she writes, "every time I hugged another sobbing friend – or one stoically blinking back tears, which was almost worse – I had to fight back a wave of sadness that threatened to swallow me whole. At every step, I felt that I had let everyone down. Because I had."

This glimpse of Hillary the human being feels as incongruous as it is endearing. After her speech, she nurses her wounds in the manner of a rich, late-middle-aged, white lady straight out of a Nancy Meyers rom-com. She retreats to her house in Chappaqua, N.Y., swathes herself in yoga pants and keeps busy with home renovations, Netflix binges of The Good Wife (!) and Downton Abbey, alternate nostril breathing and a great deal of chardonnay. Her family, friends and her Methodist faith, a driving force in her life and politics that is only touched on, eventually drew her out of the darkness. As she reflected on her loss during her long walks in the nearby woods, she writes that the question blaring in her head was, "How did this happen?"

Her postmortem doesn't offer new revelations or theories, but it's still worthwhile and fascinating to understand the events as she saw them. She lays out her case at length – she is nothing if not meticulous – and boils her defeat down to "a perfect storm" of Russian interference, a press suckered by Trump's showmanship and obsessed with her failings, e-mails, misogyny and racism and – most of all – the late October reopening of the FBI's investigation into her use of a private e-mail server by Comey, who she believes "badly overstepped his bounds."

Whether or not people will agree with this analysis – and expect a deluge of think pieces in coming days – seems beside the point. With her guard now down, Clinton is fierce and few are spared. In her view, Trump poses a grave threat to American democracy. She calls him a fraud who wants to "be like Putin … an authoritarian leader who could put down dissenters, repress minorities, disenfranchise voters, weaken the press, and amass untold billions for himself." Putin, meanwhile, is a classic "manspreader" who hates women – her, in particular.

Then there's Bernie Sanders, whose calls for revolution drove her nuts (he forced her into the role of "spoilsport school marm," she writes) as did his criticism of president Barack Obama during the primaries, which she sees as an act of party disloyalty. "He's not a Democrat," she points out about Sanders more than once.

Among all these critiques, she doesn't spare herself: "None of the factors I've discussed here lessen the responsibility I feel or the aching sense that I let everyone down." (She is admiringly loyal to her staff and views her campaign's mistakes as primarily hers.) Nor does she play down how certain she was she'd win – an estimation she now regrets. Reading her account of election night, as she optimistically refines her acceptance speech and plans her transition, brings the same feeling of dread as watching a doomed victim wandering around a darkened house in a horror movie: "Hillary, get out now while you still can!"

Most moving are her accounts of the two men who played the largest roles in her political life: her husband, Bill Clinton, and her rival-turned-champion, Obama. No marriage is entirely comprehensible from the outside; the Clintons' is perhaps more mysterious than most. But for Hillary, Bill has been a mainstay: "I was grateful for the one-billionth time," she writes, "that I had a husband who was good company not just in happy times but in sad ones as well."

With Obama, as with Bill, it's complicated. But after their bruising primary fight in 2008, they seem to have recognized in each other a kindred political spirit. Both are smart, reserved, pragmatic centrists. Clinton hired much of staff from Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns and turned to him regularly for advice. On election night, after she conceded to Trump, she called Obama to say, "I'm sorry for letting you down." He reminded her that there is life after defeat.

In interviews, Clinton has said that her postdefeat life will not include another political run. But Trump's America, she says, is too scary for her to bow out entirely. The book's release is tied to the launch of her political advocacy group, Onward Together, which she hopes will encourage more civic engagement. (The slogan is "Resist, insist, persist, enlist.") Her critics might wish she'd sit down and shut up already; as if anticipating the backlash, she writes, "What makes me such a lightning rod for fury? I'm really asking. I'm at a loss." But for the more than 65 million Americans who voted for her, it's worth considering what she thinks should happen now.

Rachel Giese is the editor-at-large at Chatelaine. Her first book, Boys: What It Means to Become a Man in the 21st Century, will be published in 2018.

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The Canadian Press