Early on in Romantic Comedy, its protagonist Sally Milz, an acerbic, hilarious, insecure and occasionally unlikeable comedy writer at The Night Owls (a fictionalised Saturday Night Live) tells the hunky singer Noah Brewster, “I’m going to write non-condescendingly, ragingly feminist screenplays for romantic comedies […] I want to create characters who aren’t flawless but also aren’t ridiculous or incompetent at life.”
This is Curtis Sittenfeld – whose last book, Rodham, reimagined Hillary Clinton’s life had she not married Bill – laying out her own brief. This book isn’t a screenplay, of course, but it is a revival of and a riff on the golden era of romantic comedies, a strong desire for which has pervaded TV, film and book discourse in recent years. Readers and viewers want to see more people fall in love. We’re desperate for that squishy, warm feeling you get when two diametrically opposed yet perfectly suited people fall for one another against the odds. But we want it with Nora Ephron’s wit and intelligence, not something “so bad it’s good”. We don’t want women who are girl bosses and men who are toddlers, faux-fighting in a love match that feels dreamt up by male-middle aged studio execs trying to tick things off their feminism checklist. We want something modern, clever, dreamt up by writers who actually love the genre.
Does Sittenfeld deliver? Yes, she most certainly does – as you’d expect from the author of boarding school novel Prep, revered as she is for her ability to take genres predisposed to cliche and transform them into something original. Romantic Comedy succeeds because its two leads, an ordinary woman and a superstar man, are fully-formed creatures. Sally doesn’t think much of herself. Long ago she was romantically rejected by another TNO writer, and before that she got divorced, and her self-esteem has never quite recovered, although naturally she doesn’t realise that. She is wedded to her work and writing a sketch denigrating her “pasty-faced” colleague, who is engaged to a famous actress much more attractive than himself. This doesn’t happen the other way round, she argues. Hot men don’t go for kooky, brilliant, less hot women. Oh, what a premise.
But Noah isn’t just a hot man either. As a guest host on TNO, he comes to Sally for advice and their conversations are immediately sparky. Noah is self-aware, hard-working, curious. He’s open where she’s shut-down. Their attraction is a dance, a nuanced exchange of needs and interests. It’s only when Sally makes a curt remark that makes Noah feel like a dumb blonde that their burgeoning romance is cut off, before being revived in the second part of the book via email in the depths of the pandemic. This is a section that may put some people off if they hate reading about Covid or find the change in pace a bit discombobulating (the first section is slow, the latter two much zippier). But to me it was an epistolary flirtation that felt both bursting with chemistry and realistic. There are some things you just can’t say face to face.
It’s not Sittenfeld’s first rodeo when it comes to rom coms. She rewrote Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a book called Eligible in 2016, and she brings the same arch sensibilities, fun and delightfully detailed, cool, clear prose to this love affair.
All of this is, of course, the oldest dynamic in the book. It’s not hard to write rom coms. It’s just very hard to do them well. At one point, Noah says: “Can you define cheese for me? Because I still haven’t figured out, after two decades, where the line is between cheese and emotional extravagance that’s acceptable. What makes a song or a movie or a moment in real life land on one side or the other?” I still don’t quite know the answer to this, but I do know that Sittenfeld has landed on the right side.
Romantic Comedy is published 6 April (Doubleday, £16.99)