Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld review – when Noah met Sally

A comedy sketch writer’s crush on a pop star sparks this witty take on the Hollywood romcom

Have we reached a point where the novel should aspire to be like the best Hollywood romcoms? That’s the intriguing question that animates Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy. Sittenfeld is best known for her complex portrayals of first ladies in books that are more like tragedies in their probing of regret – 2020’s Rodham, 2008’s American Wife. Here, she throws all the ingredients of 1930s Hollywood into modern America.

The book opens in New York in 2018. Sally is a confident, witty writer on the fictional equivalent of Saturday Night Live. She’s confronted by Noah, a hot pop star who’s guest-starring that week and wants her to help him refine the sketch he’s written. Huddled over her computer together, she’s surprised by how kind and thoughtful he is, and finds herself developing “a consuming, imbalance-inducing crush”. He’s so delighted by their collaborative sparring session that his concert that afternoon turns into a way of serenading her.

What can go wrong? It just so happens that this particular week, Sally is writing a sketch about the way that pasty-skinned, sleep-deprived male writers get to go out with gorgeous female movie stars, but such couples never exist with the genders switched. She can’t believe that Noah really fancies her, and at the aftershow party, just when he’s about to lean in for a kiss, she makes a cruel and self-sabotaging remark about him dating models. It’s only two years later, when they are both isolated in lockdown and he risks sending her an email, that they reconnect. Appropriately, she’s in the midst of trying to write a script for a romcom with a strong and capable female lead.

The best exploration of the genius of classic Hollywood romcoms is philosopher Stanley Cavell’s 1981 book Pursuits of Happiness – which I suspect Sittenfeld has read. For Cavell, all the great romcoms are comedies of remarriage rather than marriage. In films such as Bringing Up Baby or The Lady Eve, there’s some almost catastrophic mistake that separates the couples, who then get back together with new possibilities for forgiveness and mutual education. Sittenfeld’s novel has many of the ingredients that Cavell picks out: a feisty, unconventional female lead with an absent mother; a pastoral element; enough time and money to engage in the serious play of romance.

For Cavell, central to all of this is the “extravagant expressiveness” two people can find together; romance becomes an endless conversation because “talking together is fully and plainly being together, a mode of association, a form of life”. This is precisely what Sally and Noah discover. “Aren’t we all just looking for someone to talk about everything with?” Noah asks Sally in an email. “Someone worth the effort of telling our stories and opinions to, whose stories and opinions we actually want to hear?” Gradually, Sally learns to accept this as a desire she can acknowledge and fulfil.

Sally doesn’t manage to write the great romcom of her dreams – maybe because she’s too busy living one. Does Sittenfeld? Alas, in the end, not quite. There’s so much to applaud here. Sittenfeld is such a witty writer, so the banter and sketches are funny enough to feel as though we really are in the company of America’s funniest sketch writers. It’s a moving and compulsive novel, and I had the happiest of weekends reading about Sally and Noah being funny and kind and having great sex. The TV series setting is ideal for the exuberant “purposiveness without purpose” that Cavell finds in romcoms.

But there’s a tidiness that risks becoming slightness in Sittenfeld’s novel. It may be that not enough goes wrong. There’s no catastrophe keeping the lovers apart, and though Noah is a recovered alcoholic, he doesn’t bring a single flaw to the relationship, just his “easygoing warmth” and endless capacity to forgive and assuage Sally’s spiky anxieties. It may also be simply that the kind of endless conversation celebrated by Cavell requires the presence of actual actors immersing you in actual talk to give it the high-wire fizz it needs. There’s a lot of farce in films such as Bringing Up Baby, and a kind of excess of energy close to the grotesque. And there’s just the feeling of being caught up in the back and forth of talk, which literature can’t quite recreate.

Despite this, at its most expansive, Sittenfeld’s novel continues her wider project of exploring the possibility for a kind of redemptive idealism within our flawed world. In American Wife, the first lady celebrates reading for giving her the gifts of “curiosity and sympathy, an awareness of the world as an odd and vibrant and contradictory place”. Here, Sally and Noah discover that they both have a long attachment to Thoreau’s line that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. For Sally, this means rejoicing in ambivalence and rejecting conventional markers of happiness. Thoreau – and behind him Emerson – is central to Cavell’s reading of the great romantic comedies, because these couples try to “walk in the direction of their dreams”. There’s revolution in these ideas for Thoreau, and for Sittenfeld, too. To face the quiet desperation, to dream and to think that dreams can be pursued as a couple rather than alone – Sittenfeld takes romance beyond sweetness to show how dangerous and transformative intimacy can be.

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Lara Feigel

The GuardianTramp

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