“Romantic Comedy: A Novel,” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Romantic Comedy: A Novel” (2023) is clever and entertaining.  Its premise is stated in the Prologue: why do average guys get to date attractive female celebrities and not the reverse? (5).*  It’s 2018, and protagonist Sally Milz, a comedy writer for a “Saturday Night Live” lookalike “The Night Owls,” or TNO, finds that her chummy colleague Danny Horst has just gotten engaged to the beautiful star Annabel Lily.  Sally then proceeds to live out the reversal of her initial query.  She falls for the handsome, talented singer-songwriter Noah Brewster, and their “romantic comedy” concludes with the classic happy ending. 

Curtis Sittenfeld. Photo courtesy of curtissittenfeld.com.

As in many Sittenfeld novels, the protagonist is smart and witty, observant and curious.  She’s also anxious.  Sally recalls the intelligent yet insecure Lee Fiora in Sittenfeld’s classic debut novel “Prep” (2005).  Ultimately, things don’t work out romantically for Lee, but she is an adolescent and has much learning and a whole life ahead of her.  Sally and Noah, on the other hand, are in their late thirties by the time they get together and are happy to have found such a connection.

Chapter 1 establishes the frenetic pace and particular culture of working for a late-night comedy show.  The divisions by increments of day and time communicate the heady urgency of writing sketches, pitching them, revising them and preparing performances for a live audience.  This section is clearly well researched.  There is an authenticity to the smart, edgy group of young writers and cast members willing to stay up all night working on material.  One reads: “[TNO] was perhaps the one workplace in America where people who had spouses and kids were not only in the minority but were looked at with vague pity, because how could anyone possibly manage that, too?” (24).  It is on the set of TNO that Sally meets Noah, the musical guest and host of the show that week.  There are memorable lines that capture Sally’s incredulity as sparks begin to fly between the two.  At one of his song rehearsals they make “sustained” eye contact and Sally wonders: “[W]as he, like, serenading me?” (71).  Noah wonders if the tattoos scattered on different parts of his body will affect a sketch and when he shows them to her, she is shaken: “Never had I wanted so badly to just smash myself against another person….  And wasn’t he complicit, hadn’t he gotten about 13 percent of the way to naked?” (88).

Cover of “Romantic Comedy: A Novel.”

Chapters 2 and 3, which could almost stand alone, focus on Sally and Noah’s love story.  It leaves the reader wondering if the lengthy stage setting in Chapter 1 is a bit overly wrought and if some of the detail about the inner workings at TNO could be reduced.  This is 2020 and, after their tentative and rocky start at romance at TNO, Sally and Noah begin emailing each other during the long, lonely days of the pandemic.  Sittenfeld’s humor shines here in catchy exchanges.  In response to Noah’s first message, Sally writes: “Hope you’re hanging in there during this, um, deadly global shitshow” (132).  When Noah asks Sally where she is staying, she explains: “I’m actually in (steel yourself for glamour ahead) Kansas City, Missouri.  In my childhood bedroom.  Living with my 81-year-old stepdad and his beagle Sugar.  The glamour never stops!” (134).  Later, when she describes her stepfather, she writes: “Jerry is very nice, very proper, and considers things like email and oat milk to be cutting edge” (145).  Anticipation and desire build as the two share secrets and stories of their pasts through emails – today’s version of love letters.  Indeed, Jane Hu notes Sittenfeld’s debt to “the novel’s long tradition of epistolary romance.”

In keeping with the context of TNO in which you have to try really hard to offend people (171), Sittenfeld’s characters embrace politically correct attitudes while she satirizes that correctness at the same time.  For example, both Sally and Noah take pains to be sensitive to one another.  Sally is sorry that Noah’s parents aren’t supportive of his career (155).  Noah is “very sorry” if he was cheeky in asking for a pdf about her brief first marriage (170).  He further writes: “I want you to know that I realize…that getting divorced is a very challenging life experience, and I shouldn’t have been flippant about it” (170).  “Seriously,” Sally responds, “your remorse here is very endearing, in addition to being hilarious.  Please consider saying a few more things that you think are inappropriate and then apologizing for them” (172).  In many ways, Noah is the perfect beau, so in tune with Sally’s needs.  Yet is he, perhaps, the kind of hero we only find in novels or romantic comedies?

The Epilogue finds the wedded pair living the dream in L.A.  It’s 2023.  Noah is still a star musician and Sally is now a screenwriter ever grateful for her start at TNO and her luck in finding love.

“Romantic Comedy” does not reach the emotional intensity or subtle character development of Sittenfeld’s great novels “Prep,” “American Wife” (2008) or “Sisterland” (2013).  In “American Wife,” in particular, the pain and gripping choices of the pseudo Laura Bush character Alice Blackwell are expertly drawn.  It is not as imaginative as the contemporary take on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” that we find in “Eligible” (2016) or the speculation about what life would have been like had Hillary Clinton become president in the riveting work of historical fiction “Rodham” (2020).  Yet “Romantic Comedy” does invite us to ponder classic Sittenfeld questions of social norms, gender expectations and life choices.  It also gives us the opportunity to relish her stylistic expertise. Finally, we get a glimpse into the heady lives of hit comedy writers and famous performers who emerge, in the end, as not so different from the rest of us after all. 

Further Reading

Hu, Jane.  “A Rom-Com that Seduces the Old-Fashioned Way.”  “The Atlantic.”  3 May 2023.  Web.   Accessed 8 June 2023.  https://www.theatlantic.com/books/archive/2023/05/romantic-comedy-book-review-curtis-sittenfeld/673929/

Sittenfeld, Curtis.  American Wife: A Novel.  New York: Random House, 2008.

—.  “Eligible: A Novel.”  New York: Random House, 2016.

—.  “Prep: A Novel.”  New York: Random House, 2005.

—.  “Rodham: A Novel.”  New York: Random House, 2020.

—.  “Romantic Comedy: A Novel.”  New York: Random House, 2023.

—.  “Sisterland: A Novel.”  New York: Random house, 2013.

* All references to Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Romantic Comedy” are from the 2023 edition published by Random House.

Claire Marrone is Professor of French and Italian at Sacred Heart University, where she teaches courses in French/Francophone and Italian language, literature, culture, and film. She holds a Ph.D. in French and Italian from the University of Pennsylvania, and joined Sacred Heart in 1992 after teaching at the University of Minnesota, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Paris X, the Frères Lumière University in Lyons, France, and the Bryn Mawr College/University of Pennsylvania Italian Studies Summer Institute in Florence, Italy. In addition to her book “Female Journeys: Autobiographical Expressions by French and Italian Women,” Dr. Marrone has published numerous articles on works from the nineteenth century to the present.

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