A Rom-Com That Seduces the Old-Fashioned Way

Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel masterfully dissects a well-worn genre.

Cutout illustration of a couple on a red and white backdrop
Illustration by Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic. Source: Marka / Alamy; Trinity Mirror / Alamy; Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single, hot woman must be in want of a schlubby man who can make her laugh. This is, at least, the fantasy that romantic comedies have too often sold us, from Woody Allen’s Manhattan to Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day to Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up. In these films, what’s most valued in a man is not his body—or even his bank account—but his winning personality. When it comes to romancing a woman, humor and a heart of gold turn out to be a foolproof strategy of seduction. And part of the comedy is that an average-looking man who tells good jokes is able to tell them all the way to the bedroom.

This familiar trope is also the opening setup to Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Romantic Comedy, though Sittenfeld deftly toggles between deconstructing a well-worn genre and leaning into its most predictable beats. She does this, in part, by setting her novel in the entertainment industry—that producer of slick narrative arcs and neat archetypes—and, more specifically, by making her protagonist a professional comedian, someone whose literal job is to poke fun at the scripts that govern our desires.

The story begins with our heroine, Sally Milz, a comedy writer at The Night Owls (a fictionalized Saturday Night Live), waking up to discover that her “pasty skinned and sleep-deprived” co-worker Danny Horst is dating Annabel Lily—a “gorgeous, talented, world-famous movie star” who is, by all accounts, out of Danny’s league. The news of a rich starlet coupling up with a normie civilian is standard tabloid fodder, but Sally immediately notes how this pairing would never happen if the genders were reversed. Incensed by the double standard, she does what she knows best: “I would write about my fury,” she tells herself. “I’d turn my feelings into comedy, and that’s how I’d cure myself.”

Sally pitches her comedic corrective at the next TNO meeting in the form of “The Danny Horst Rule”—a sketch that takes on the sexist cliché whereby “men at TNO date above their station, but women never do.” Because that week’s host is the impossibly handsome 36-year-old musician Noah Brewster, the punch line comes when he gets arrested for breaking the so-called Danny Horst Rule by going on a date with a less attractive woman. What starts out as a joke, however, soon turns all too real, as Sally finds herself falling for Noah and sensing that he might be falling for her as well. The dynamic Sally had said would never transpire seems to be developing in her own life. It’s all so unrealistic that it borders on the stuff of fantasy or—just maybe—rom-coms.

Romantic Comedy isn’t shy about its appeal to its titular genre, which Sittenfeld has been circling for years. There’s Eligible, her modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, as well as her fictionalized biographies of Laura Bush (American Wife) and Hillary Clinton (Rodham), both at heart marriage plots. Whereas American Wife dramatizes the consequences of marrying a man who—in a shock to everyone—becomes the next U.S. president, Rodham imagines the counterfactual life of a woman who chooses not to marry Bill Clinton. But Romantic Comedy has most in common with Sittenfeld’s bildungsroman Prep, her 2005 debut novel set at a fictional boarding school in Massachusetts, which has since become a cult classic of American campus fiction. If that earlier novel featured an awkward and neurotic girl navigating the intricate hierarchies of high-school romance, then her most recent one—centered on a still-anxious 36-year-old woman—reads like a grown-up sequel to Prep.

By Curtis Sittenfeld

Even grown-ups, though, continue to fumble at love. The pitch meeting doesn’t exactly go as Sally plans. Upon hearing her idea for the sketch, Noah demurs—insisting that he’d rather be in the position of being mocked than risk mocking others. This initial rebuff is textbook for any romantic comedy. Only when Noah later visits Sally’s office asking for help on one of his own proposed sketches do sparks start to fly. It’s an electric scene that mixes equal parts romance and comedy—and one that routes eros not through physical attraction, but through the good old-fashioned seduction of persuasive writing. A woman making a man’s jokes funnier: What could be more romantic than that?

This early coy scene of editorial feedback is, of course, not the moment when unequivocal romance blooms; that would be too easy. Following the typical beats of the genre, Sittenfeld takes her time, lightly tormenting her female lead and making her wait until the second act to secure her celebrity beau’s enduring interest. In romance—as in comedy—timing is everything, an axiom that Sittenfeld meticulously illustrates in her first chapter: Each scene opens with a specific date-and-time heading, a clear nod to both the novel’s diaristic mode and the tightly scripted television sitcom. This first section takes place over the course of a week, as Sally and everyone prepare for Noah’s night hosting TNO, beginning at “Monday 1 P.M.” (“pitch meeting with guest host”) and ending sometime after “Sunday 1:30 A.M.” (“first after-party”). There’s a moment during the misty hours of the after-after-party when you think Sally and Noah might even kiss—except she ruins it with a flippant dig at his track record of dating much younger models. (Think Emma Woodhouse insulting Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic, much to Mr. Knightley’s disappointment. And like Emma in the carriage afterward, Sally also cries in her cab all the way home.)

The middle section—which fast-forwards to the start of the coronavirus pandemic, in 2020—consists solely of an email exchange between Sally and Noah that grows ever more flirtatious, as they reconcile while each hunkers down alone amid rising COVID-case rates. Sittenfeld is careful to provide the precise time signatures of their correspondence, simulating both the excitement and the anxiety of receiving a missive too early (or too late). When Noah sends Sally an email on “Jul 25, 2020, 10:18AM,” teasing her about her high-school paramours, she responds almost immediately at “Jul 25, 2020, 10:59AM” with an email that begins, “Wait, who DID you lose your virginity to? (Yes, I am ending a sentence with a preposition, but that’s how urgently I need to know.)” Epistolary seduction involves a refined understanding of pacing—though it’s always hotter when you’re both attuned to the formalities of proper grammatical structure.

Any awkwardness that might have ensued from the incorporation of the pandemic into a romantic comedy (a combination of too soon? and in a comedy?) is rescued by the fact that Sittenfeld mobilizes it almost wholly as a plot device, an ingenious choice that smartly doesn’t make COVID the main narrative impetus. Time spent alone is what spurs Noah to reach out to Sally after two years of silence, and what enables their furiously attentive email exchange. Modern romance might look pretty different from the mistaken identities driving Shakespeare’s comedies or the moral compatibility of the lovers in Victorian marriage novels, but it still relies on witty repartee. At times, Sittenfeld’s sparkling banter reads like the populist’s version of a Sally Rooney novel. Sittenfeld’s prose is a bit more colloquial and her plotlines more classically structured, but both are indebted to the novel’s long tradition of epistolary romance—the progenitor, in some sense, of sexting.

This epistolary bent is one of the most winning aspects of her book—recalling films such as The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail, and, perhaps more important, the works of Jane Austen. Sittenfeld’s take on the genre seems energized by the possibilities that the novel, as a form, allows. Indeed, what feels almost refreshingly retro about Romantic Comedy is its interiority—a notably novelistic quality—and the way that much of its comedy of errors gets played out not through slapstick routines, but through Sally’s first-person narration (which anxiously, fretfully retreads her social blunders).

Similarly, it doesn’t seem a coincidence that Sally is closer in spirit to Emma Woodhouse or Anne Elliot than to her presumable namesake, Nora Ephron’s Sally Albright. When Sally first meets Noah, she tells him that, after TNO, she hopes “to write non-condescending, ragingly feminist screenplays for romantic comedies,” in which female characters “aren’t flawless but also aren’t ridiculous or incompetent at life.” (Sally has a particular allergy to rom-com heroines who are “cutesy.”) It’s a surprisingly earnest endgame for a female comedy writer who otherwise seeks to parody gendered norms, perhaps especially given that Sally is herself currently single (following a “starter marriage” in her 20s) and in no apparent rush to find a romantic partner. Sally’s desire to one day settle down and write realist romances, however, seems to come from a genuine wish to write stories for real women just like her.

Ultimately, it’s Sittenfeld, not Sally, who delivers on the promise of this kind of romantic comedy. At one point, Sally confesses to Noah that she tends to distrust her romantic instincts. When she first started working at TNO, for instance, she found herself hitting it off with a fellow comedy writer, only to discover that she had “confused the romance of comedy with the romance of romance”—something she worries is happening again with Noah. To which he replies, “Why wouldn’t this be the romance of romance?” Sometimes, with the right partner, a girl can have it both ways.

Sittenfeld treads a fine line between writing a romantic comedy and upending it—and it’s a line that grows fuzzier as Sally and Noah finally reunite in the final section (at his mansion, no less) and fall in love. In breaking the Danny Horst Rule, however, they end up fulfilling all the rules of the romantic comedy. Or, to put it another way, what begins as the romance of comedy eventually melts away into the romance of romance. But maybe that’s okay. After all, many a feminist reworking of the rom-com lies precisely in this gray zone—one in which reclaiming the genre is hard to disentangle from simply taking its fantasies seriously to begin with.

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