I really loved Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld. Celebrity romance is one of my favorite tropes, and for me this book stands out. Romantic Comedy features a hero who is not purely defined by celebrity status, gives readers a deep dive into a world I found fascinating, contains an epistolary courtship, and at times is laugh-out-loud funny.
Sally Milz is a writer for a weekly late-night sketch comedy show called TNO that is based on Saturday Night Live. When the novel opens Sally is reflecting on the fact that some of the male writers on the show have gone on to marry famous female hosts, despite lacking the same celebrity cred and generally perceived attractiveness. This has never happened to any of the female writers, so Sally writes a skit called “The Danny Horst Rule” where a female writer is arrested for dating that week’s host and musical guest, Noah Brewster. Noah is a popstar with surfer guy good looks and there’s immediate chemistry between the two of them.
Danny Horst is Sally’s roommate and essentially Pete Davidson, and the depictions of his romance with his starlet fiancé, Annabel (see Ariana Grande), are genuinely wry and humorous. The skit winds up getting cut, but Noah and Sally still spend most of the week together going over a skit that did make the air and working on one Noah wrote himself. Sally isn’t quite sure what to do about Noah’s flirtation with her and (maybe) internalizing the Danny Horst Rule, things don’t quite take off with them.
All of this takes place in 2018, and the book is very clearly set in a specific time and atmosphere. After the 2016 election, Sally’s writing has gotten sharper and edgier, as she’s pointing out the misogyny she no longer has the fucks for. Considering how contemporary this novel was, I was surprised at how immediately it took me back five years and how yes, I remember that anger and sadness at the world.
The concept of the Danny Horst Rule frames a lot of Sally’s character. Sally doesn’t spend a lot of time questioning her looks and isn’t particularly insecure about them (although she thinks about it occasionally). The conflict here is not, “he couldn’t possibly love me! I look like a normal person!” The Horst rule is more or less pointing a finger at the fact that men of a certain status are expected to date women of a similar and/or expected status (conventionally attractive, younger, visible to the world). The same rule doesn’t apply to female celebrities as much. The world expects someone of Noah’s celebrity caliber to date someone in a similar line of work or in the public eye; Sally has a job that doesn’t require her to be public, and she doesn’t want to be.
Cut to 2020. The world is in lockdown and one day Sally gets an email from Noah reaching out and hinting at the fact that he still wonders why they never took off. There’s a whole falling-in-love via email section here that I adored. Sally is left with a choice: stay where she’s comfortable or go to LA and see if she and Noah can prove the Danny Horst Rule wrong. This section also does a wonderful job of evoking a moment in time when everything was paused, everything was scary, and it makes a lot of sense that two people who can’t currently escape into their careers might be questioning their past interactions.
Sally was previously married and chose her career as a comedy writer over staying in North Carolina with her then-husband. Combined with the insane schedule of her job, she feels like she has to prioritize her love of her work over a relationship. A lot of this is an act on Sally’s part: just because her divorce wasn’t ugly doesn’t mean it didn’t impact her more than she wants to admit, and even though her schedule is nuts, her coworkers are able to juggle work and relationships. A lot of the conflict in the romance is Sally needing to get out of her own way and allow herself to be vulnerable. For his part, Noah has fewer hang ups and is far more vulnerable with Sally initially than she is with him.
This book is told from Sally’s first person POV (like a lot of celebrity books) and that can sometimes be a trap for the other characters, especially if the other protagonist is defined by being handsome and famous and not a lot else. Not here: Noah is a nuanced and developed character with challenges and insecurities.
Noah is a recovering alcoholic, he’s struggled with body image, he lost a close friend to a tragic accident, he has judgmental parents, and he wore a hairpiece for awhile.
Even though we don’t directly get Noah’s POV, the inclusion of his emails and the revelations of his character ensured he never felt unknowable.
This book is also laugh-out-loud funny, and offers a deep dive into the (not) SNL world. The first section is set during Noah’s week on the show, and the reader gets insight into how the crazy writing, set-building, table-reading, and wardrobe-creating all happens in a single week.
Honestly I Ioved the details, like how table reads are judged successful and what Sally’s writing process is like. It’s also very hard to have visual humor (like a sketch) represented in writing in a way that’s still very funny, and this book does that. There were a few jokes that had me cackling. I really recommend this book for fans of celebrity romance, but also for readers who just want a funny, witty contemporary romance.