The US author’s zingy new novel tackles celebrity, lockdown and frustrated love lives with ambition and panache Curtis Sittenfeld’s previous novel, Rodham, a counterfactual life of Hillary Clinton, imagined how things might have turned out for her and, by extension, the US had she not married Bill. Among the most audacious of the various novels responding to Trumpism, it yoked high-concept thought experiment to a rompy whole-life saga, to distinctly mixed reviews. If the sniggerers couldn’t get over the novel’s sex scenes, it was perhaps only a mark of a bigger obstacle, which was that the real Hillary loomed unhelpfully in readers’ minds.
The purer pleasure of her zingy new novel deserves more widespread approval. Romantic Comedy – a title of impressively Ronseal-like clarity – is tighter than Rodham but it’s ambitious too, navigating with unfussy panache tricky yet somehow already well-tilled terrain such as Covid-19 and modern celebrity as well as writing itself, a subject few novels manage to portray without accusations of self-indulgence.
It starts in 2018, taking us through a week in the life of its narrator, Sally, a thirtysomething divorcee who writes for The Night Owls, a fictitious New York sketch show resembling Saturday Night Live. The frenzy of her schedule, from Monday afternoon pitch meeting to midweek all-nighter to small-hours “after-after-party”, leaves little time for much beyond dating-app hookups. But when the show’s guest host, heart-throb pop star Noah, starts to flirt – if Sally is reading the signs right – it threatens to upend the logic of the sketch she’s been working on: a routine, gently pointed at a male colleague dating a bombshell actor, about why it is that gorgeous women go out with averagely attractive men, but never the other way around.
In Rodham and American Wife, about a fictionalised first lady akin to Laura Bush, Sittenfeld gave us the heady sense of peeking behind the curtain and part of Romantic Comedy’s thrill is the sense that it’s giving us the inside track on an industry. The structure of the novel’s first third, centred on the frenzied tension of the week-long countdown to live transmission, is electrically compelling, with steady warmth as well as drama generated by the camaraderie and jostling for preferment among writers and actors hoping their ideas are the ones that will make the cut. Sittenfeld even manages to create page-turning interest from the nuts and bolts of composition, putting it at the heart of the novel’s early will-they-won’t-they? frisson, when Sally improves Noah’s own idea for a skit.
Throughout, the novel’s command of structure, pace and dialogue is faultless. Sally and Noah almost kiss after the show, but instead she contrives to thoughtlessly insult him – and next thing, the novel cuts to lockdown in 2020. The hectic opening segment gives way to something aptly slower, a period portrayed as an exchange of emails between the two characters after Noah reopens contact.
Part of the fun of this long middle section is getting the chance to observe for ourselves how Sally – a writer, after all – evidently feels more in control from behind a keyboard and there’s quiet humour in how she finds ways to gradually up the stakes by casually mentioning what she’s wearing and how hot it is.
Soon another real-life meeting is on the cards – Rodham’s reception hasn’t put Sittenfeld off sex scenes – but not everything is plain sailing. For a start, there’s social media; Sally can’t quite help seeing comments: “Nhoa Brewster would never date a women who looks like that shes obvously his assitant.” There’s the matter of her widowed stepfather, too, vulnerable and alone in the pandemic, as well as the potential for awkwardness when you fall in love with someone rich enough to enable your dreams – the novel’s title, as well as flagging the contents, refers to Sally’s ambition to write romcom screenplays.
Still, while Sittenfeld knows the dramatic value of putting obstacles in the path of characters you’re rooting for, she also isn’t above giving readers what they want – and that’s exactly what she does in this affable, intelligently crafted tale of work and love.
Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld review – lights, camera, attraction
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