Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel Romantic Comedy really is a romantic comedy, complete with lovers who initially seem mismatched, complications and hurdles, and an ending that will satisfy any fan of the genre. The book is also a romantic take on comedy itself, as the protagonist, Sally Milz, works as a long-time sketch writer for The Night Owls, familiarly known as TNO, a stand-in for Saturday Night Live.

The novel is divided into three long chapters. The opening chapter, set during a single week in April 2018, has the most energy. Sittenfeld has done her research into the life of a staff writer during an average week in the run of SNL, and readers will be quickly caught up in the chaos and excitement of putting together an hour-and-a-half show from scratch in just six days.

Sally is a writer, definitely not a performer, but her two best friends on the show, Henrietta and Viv, are writer-performers, and over the course of the novel they also serve as the support team that every heroine needs as she faces the ups and downs of a romance. Sittenfeld’s version of Lorne Michaels, Nigel Petersen, is equal parts ego and empathy. However, the most crucial doppelgänger for the plot is a Pete Davidson/Colin Jost equivalent named Danny Horst who co-hosts TNO’s equivalent of “Weekend Update” and is engaged to Annabel Lily, a young woman with Ariana Grande/Scarlett Johansson star power. As Sally puts it, this pairing upsets her not because she is in love with Danny or Annabel, but because “Annabel Lily was a gorgeous, talented world-famous movie star, and Danny was a schlub.” As a result, when aging singer-songwriter Noah Brewster comes on to host the show, Sally pitches a sketch that she calls “The Danny Horst Rule,” which states that “‘men at TNO date above their station, but women never do.’”

The real highlight of week is Sally’s interactions and flirtations with Noah, whom she initially worries might be “one of the ding-dongs” barely capable of hosting The Night Owls. Instead, Noah turns out to be smart, funny, self-deprecating, charming, and, as Sally never tires of remarking throughout Romantic Comedy, incredibly handsome. Indeed, at the after-after-party following the show’s successful Saturday-night airing, Sally and Noah appear to be on their way to true love, when Sally gets nervous and sabotages the evening by needling Noah for his supposed penchant for dating models. It wouldn’t be a romantic comedy without a swerve.

During the epistolary second chapter, the pandemic is in full swing. Having recently recovered from a nasty bout with COVID, Noah has not only shaved off his famous long locks, but he’s also decided to try and reconnect with the one person he’s met who is both self-confident and really seems to get him. Sally, still wincing at her faux pas of two years later, is happy to comply, and emails fly back and forth between the two at an ever-increasing rate, as they bare their lives and deepest feelings to one another. Entire novels have been written in the form of emails, but this section feels as though it takes the conceit about as far as it can go — and maybe a tad further.

In the final chapter, Sally visits Noah in his gorgeous Topanga Canyon home, hoping to discover whether or not the frisson of their week at TNO and their impassioned email correspondence mean that she and Noah can, indeed, break the Danny Horst Rule. I won’t spoil the ending, though the book’s title does tip Sittenfeld’s hand, though I will say that very often Noah Brewster feels a little too good to be true. Decades of success as a rock star have, improbably, made him more modest, more caring, and more sensitive to the slightest fluctuations in Sally’s moods. And while Sally is believable as a winsome neurotic comic genius capable of knocking the Danny Horst Rule on its keister, her repeated unforced errors in her relationship with Noah do come to feel like a bit that’s stretched too thin.

Curtis Sittenfeld is a wonderful writer, and many of us will follow her wherever she decides to go. If this particular novel is lighter fare than much of her previous work, it’s hard to fault a book for being entertaining and fun.

This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books.


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