Sally Milz has her dream job: comedy writer on The Night Owls, a Saturday television sketch show. Getting it cost her marriage and dominates her life. “It was perhaps the one workplace in America,” narrates Sally, the leading lady in Curtis Sittenfeld’s keenly anticipated new novel, Romantic Comedy, “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?” The writing schedule dictates her week, requiring overnight stays in the office and post-show drinks.

Sally’s romantic ambitions aim no higher than hookups with Gene, a man who falls short of the “friend-with-benefits” moniker because she doesn’t like him very much. When he sends her a dick pic, she is freaked out not by the obscenity but because the background glimpses of his flat remind her that he is essentially a stranger.

She is so irritated by the number of schlubby men who pair up with gorgeous, successful women she coins “The Danny Horst Rule” after her colleague, a fellow writer who gets engaged to a beautiful actress.

Arriving to host a TNO episode is Noah Brewster, a singer-songwriter with “piercing blue eyes, shaggy blond hair and stubble, a big toothy grin, and a jacked body”, best known for the hit “Making Love in July”, which is “a paean to respectfully taking the virginity of a long-haired girl with ‘glowy skin’, a ‘pouty mouth’ and ‘raspberry nipples’.”

Sally pitches a sketch that reverses The Danny Horst Rule. “Just so I understand,” says Noah, “I’d be breaking the law because I’m so much better looking than a woman I’m dating.”

This is the modern setting for the conventional meet-cute. What follows is the traditional (and by this I mean no disrespect) structure — encounter, separation and reunion — used by many romantic comedies.

As with all her novels, Sittenfeld creates fresh and good-humoured characters, layered with acute and witty social observation. The author of Eligible, a modern version of Pride and Prejudice, and Prep, set in a US boarding school, Sittenfeld is best known for her fictional stories of two of America’s first ladies. Based on the life of Laura Bush, American Wife tells the story of Alice Blackwell, who is haunted by crashing a car and killing a friend before entering the gilded social circles of her boyfriend, who goes on to become her husband and president. While Rodham is counterfactual, posing the question: what would have happened to Hillary Clinton if she had rejected a life dealing with Bill’s sexual appetites?

Book cover of ‘Romantic Comedy’

Those central characters are well drawn and humane, with complex interior lives, and Sittenfeld brings her customary warmth to Romantic Comedy. The thrill and awkward paranoia of flirtation are beautifully rendered. Should Sally react with hope or despair to Noah’s ambiguous statement: “I was definitely trying to impress you and I was not trying to seduce you.”

But Sittenfeld goes further, exploring the purpose of love. “Aren’t we all just looking for someone to talk about everything with? Someone worth the effort of telling our stories and opinions to, whose stories and opinions we actually want to hear?” At one point Sally worries about being needy. “Isn’t the point,” Noah asks, “that the other person tries to meet your needs, and you try to meet theirs?”

The novel is entertaining on the workplace, the television industry and celebrity. “Does America have a fucked up love-hate relationship with celebrities?” says Noah. “Definitely, yes.”

Sittenfeld is a fan of comedians’ memoirs, saying once that her comfort reads are “essay collection / autobiography hybrids by comedians, especially those who have been on Saturday Night Live”.

The immersion in the culture has paid off, though the research is lightly worn. Many observations of workplace relations could apply to other industries, such as paranoia about a new roommate: “TNO and Nigel [her boss] specifically were notorious for indirection, with people not knowing they’d been hired or fired. Was putting me in a crappy office with a new twenty-four-year-old dude a way of nudging me toward the exit without telling me to leave?”

The neatness of Sittenfeld’s writing makes it easy to digest observations of the complexities of modern life. In one email, Sally wonders if “a person’s writing self is their realest self, their fake self, or just a different self than their in-the-world self?”

Writers of romantic comedies have long complained that their work is not taken seriously because it caters to a female readership and deals with the supposedly light topic of relationships. As if such books did not also deal with family and social commentary. Was Jane Austen a lightweight because she sets her protagonist the goal of finding a suitable husband? Why should it be seen as more deft or serious to tackle darkness and grief than joy and love?

Kudos, then, to Sittenfeld for titling her book Romantic Comedy. She has avoided the temptation to craft a Trojan horse, to conceal romance beneath other subjects, instead revelling in giddy emotions and describing sex as an act to be enjoyed — a refreshing contrast to a number of recent books by other authors who reduce it to a dead-eyed encounter. Sometimes I wanted more savagery to the jokes, but that would puncture the generosity.

Sceptics and cold hearts should give Romantic Comedy a go. And if they don’t — so be it — fans will be rewarded.

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld, Doubleday £16.99/Random House $28, 320 pages

Emma Jacobs is the FT’s work & careers writer

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article