Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld – Review
By Barney Bardsley
Curtis Sittenfeld is a clever and appealing writer, who achieved well-deserved acclaim for her fictionalised account of Laura Bush and the extended Bush clan in American Wife – and then again for Rodham, a novelistic re-imagining of someone from another high profile political family in the US, namely the Clintons. It felt unusually daring for a contemporary novelist to take on such well-known living characters and make them completely her own. And after American Wife in particular, I became a fan of her work. So when it came to her newest offering, Romantic Comedy, I started reading in eager expectation of something equally sharp, witty and satirical. A lampooning, surely, of that much-loved, much-derided genre, to which the title of her book alludes.
But I was surprised at what I found. For, far from gently and quizzically deconstructing her subject matter, as I had come to expect, in Romantic Comedy Sittenfeld seems to have fallen in love with the form itself. The result is a sweetly comedic romance: unapologetically, unironically so. The book is easy to read and entirely inoffensive. But I had expected something different, something more, and so was left feeling puzzled and underwhelmed. The writer who was so knowing in her earlier works, is in a very different mood here indeed.
The book takes as its premise the real difficulty – in our male-dominated public sphere – that a rich, handsome and famous man faces, should he fall in love with a woman seen as altogether less ‘alpha’ in the public gaze. Not quite the status symbol, or arm candy, that she should be. So here we have pop star Noah Brewster, who is guest editing an American comedy show, based on the format of the phenomenally successful Saturday Night Live. He catches the eye of one of the writing team, Sally Milz, who is considerably less confident, extroverted and – well – attractive than he is. What follows is a comedy of chase and retreat, and an exploration of the woeful insecurities sparked by falling in love, particularly when the stakes are as high as they are here.
The most interesting aspect of the book is the characterisation of Sally, and how she repeatedly shoots herself in the foot during her flirtation with Noah, because she simply cannot believe that a man like him would be interested in a woman like her. But he is. And in a story that plants the Covid pandemic, as well as the adrenaline-fuelled world of television, right at the heart of proceedings, adding colour and complexity to the situation, Sittenfeld takes us through the highs and lows of a new relationship, in her characteristically warm and consummately human manner, so that you really end up hoping the best for both of her protagonists. No spoiler as to the ending. But you will guess it pretty early on.
There are some really affecting moments in the novel. Sittenfeld writes surprisingly well about sex – and how many writers manage to do that? – and she brings in friends and family relationships in a way that brings texture and interest to the main storyline. The character of her beloved stepfather Jerry is particularly winning, and he throws the first real challenge the young lovers face together, after he catches Covid, bringing the only real sense of jeopardy to the book, as we wonder whether he will survive it or not. But if you are expecting a twist in the tale, some sudden accident, or the real dark shadows of loss to cross these lovers’ paths, then you have come to the wrong book completely. Romantic Comedy is exactly what it promises in the title. And nothing wrong with that at all, but as I turned the pages, I found myself wishing I had re-read American Wife instead.
‘Romantic Comedy’ by Curtis Sittenfeld is published by Doubleday