Spotlight Review: ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld

From the publisher:

Sally Milz is a sketch writer for The Night Owls, a late-night live comedy show that airs every SaturdayWith a couple of heartbreaks under her belt, she’s long abandoned the search for love, settling instead for the occasional hook-up, career success, and a close relationship with her stepfather to round out a satisfying life.

But when Sally’s friend and fellow writer Danny Horst begins dating Annabel, a glamorous actress who guest-hosted the show, he joins the not-so-exclusive group of talented but average-looking and even dorky men at the show—and in society at large—who’ve gotten romantically involved with incredibly beautiful and accomplished women. Sally channels her annoyance into a sketch called the Danny Horst Rule, poking fun at this phenomenon while underscoring how unlikely it is that the reverse would ever happen for a woman.

Enter Noah Brewster, a pop music sensation with a reputation for dating models, who signed on as both host and musical guest for this week’s show. Dazzled by his charms, Sally hits it off with Noah instantly, and as they collaborate on one sketch after another, she begins to wonder if there might actually be sparks flying. But this isn’t a romantic comedy—it’s real life. And in real life, someone like him would never date someone like her . . . right?

With her keen observations and trademark ability to bring complex women to life on the page, Curtis Sittenfeld explores the neurosis-inducing and heart-fluttering wonder of love, while slyly dissecting the social rituals of romance and gender relations in the modern age.

REESE’S BOOK CLUB PICK • A comedy writer thinks she’s sworn off love, until a dreamy pop star flips the script on all her assumptions—a “smart, sophisticated, and fun” (Oprah Daily) novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Eligible, Rodham, and Prep.

“Delightful . . . The woman narrating Romantic Comedy is hyper-aware of the conventions of romantic comedy, and she knows full well that real life is no fairy tale. But could it be this time?”—The Washington Post

“A love letter to the prototypical rom-com . . . Sittenfeld’s work exists in the dissection and comprehension of female desire: what we want, what we absolutely don’t and, maybe paramount, what we’re even allowed to have. . . . A fizzy ride.”The New York Times Book Review

“Sittenfeld’s meta-romance is an utterly perfect version of itself, a self-aware and pandemic-informed love story that’s no less romantic for being either. . . . Fans will flock to this pure-fun, feminist romp.”Booklist (starred review)

If you’ve never read Sittenfeld, it’s high time you started, and this is as good a place as any to begin. She writes smart, literary but always engaging stories that are interesting, worthwhile, and discussion worthy. So let’s discuss this book.

If you aren’t familiar with the publishing industry, let me just say that there is a thick dividing line, more like a solid brick wall, between literary fiction and genre fiction (romance, mystery, sci-fi, etc.) For instance, most of the romances that I read that are published by Penguin Random House are published under the Berkley imprint. This book is not; it’s under the Random House imprint, an unusual place to find romance. But because this is Sittenfeld, it’s entirely appropriate – despite the title. But enough about that. On to the book!

Sally Milz is a writer for a Saturday Night Live (SNL) clone called The Night Owls (TNO). If you follow pop culture at all then you are probably aware of the Colin Jost – Scarlett Johansson marriage and the short-lived romance of Pete Davidson & Ariana Grande. All those romances between, let’s say schlubby, not especially good-looking but funny men and beautiful, extremely talented, powerful women are at the heart of this story.

Noah Brewster is a ripped, extremely good-looking man who has been a pop music sensation for over twenty years. He is invited to both guest host the show as well as perform as the musical guest. He arrives on Monday to start working with the writers and cast, and surprisingly, he has his own idea for a sketch – and it’s good. He is told to ask Sally to help him with it, and they spend a very agreeable afternoon working together.

Sally has an idea for a sketch she calls the Danny Horst Rule. Danny is another writer on the show, and he anchors the “news” desk segment. He is not especially good-looking but is funny and smart. He is involved with a Scarlett Johansson-type actress, and theirs is an on-again, off-again romance that plays out in the tabloids. Sally’s idea is that while the male writers/actors on the show can hook up with beautiful, uber-successful women, it doesn’t work the opposite way. No average-looking female writer is going to date a gorgeous, successful celebrity. She suggests the sketch to Noah, but he isn’t comfortable with it.

The week they spend together on the show makes Sally feel like they have a connection, but she is leery of it (see the Danny Horst Rule.) At the after-party after the show, they spend some time together talking in a bar, but then Sally becomes her own worst enemy and says something about Noah’s reputation for dating supermodels, and he is truly offended. After she pisses off Noah, they don’t speak again for a couple of years.

Now we are in the pandemic, and everyone is home and bored and not knowing what is going to happen next. Sally gets an email from Noah, and the next thing you know, they are emailing back and forth several times a day for almost two weeks. They graduate to phone calls, and then Noah invites Sally to visit him at his California estate. She goes, but with a lot of trepidation. Is he feeling the same way she is? She scrutinizes every line he’s written, while she doesn’t know that he is doing exactly the same thing.

The book is written in three chapters; the first is the week of the show, the second is the email relationship, and the third is the in-person visit. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes type info in the first chapter, and since I have been watching SNL every Saturday night since its inception, I found it all fascinating. The diva hosts are not invited back, while the hosts that are fun and collegial make regular appearances (the 5 timers club). There were some interesting tidbits about Nigel (the Lorne Michaels of the book) and all that goes on in producing a live show week after week. I cannot say for certain that this is based on research or if she totally made it all up, but it felt real to me.

I love a good epistolary novel, so the email chapter really worked for me. It’s a tiny bit voyeuristic and very revealing of the characters’ motivations and personalities. We can easily see how Sally is always getting in her own way, and at times it was frustrating – I wanted to sit her down and say just stop it!

The visit during the pandemic felt like the shortest chapter in the book, and we definitely get the happy ending that is expected in a romantic comedy. That Sittenfeld chose to title her book this way felt like she was creating a significant crack in the divide between literary and genre fiction, and as someone who reads it all, that alone is a triumph. Put this on your must-read list and bring it to your book club; they will thank you for it. I do believe this is the first book I’ve read this year that I can say with certainty will be on my best books of 2023 list – I loved it.

PS: If you want more Sittenfeld recommendations, my favorites are Prep, Eligible, and American Wife.

4/2023 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld.‎ Random House (April 4, 2023). ISBN:‎ 978-0399590948. 320 p.



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