by Curtis Sittenfeld
This is a quite sophisticated Romance. I generally like books that primarily center around family dynamics, conflict, developing friendships, intrigue, conquering adversity, etc. etc., with romance included as icing on the cake. This one brought enough to the table, despite being firmly in the Romance category, that it kept my interest and I really liked it.
The story is divided into 3 parts. In the first, we meet Sally, a writer for The Night Owls, which is a fictional version of Saturday Night Live. The reader is immersed in the culture and process of bringing a cutting-edge live comedy sketch show to the air every week, and our heroine’s part in that. We can assume that Sally’s friends and colleagues are pretty accurate representations of real people. It was fascinating and educational. The plot launches when Sally learns that her good friend and fellow writer, funny and intelligent but not at all physically attractive, and a dweeb, is the latest of a long line of fellow SNL (oops TNO) male cast members who have hooked up with beautiful and talented women. The Danny Horst Rule stipulates that men can and do all of the time “date above their station” but women can’t and don’t ever. Witty and sharp but average-looking women are never the romantic target of handsome, successful and talented men their same age. Annoyed, she writes a satirical sketch about it and it is chosen to air. How ironic that the musical guest host is a singer/songwriter lauded for his sexy looks as much as his considerable talent. And though he is known for dating only beautiful models and such, he seems curiously interested and attracted to Sally! Sally really likes Noah and develops a crush on the darling of millions who is as nice and down to earth as he is handsome and popular. But she cannot accept that he could possibly be interested in her, so she self-protectively sabotages the relationship just when it is starting to get interesting.
Two years later, the country is in the middle of the panic over Covid, and business and society are at a standstill. Sally is back in her hometown of Kansas City sheltering with her beloved 81-year-old stepfather. She gets an email from Noah out of the blue. In the next chapter (part two), they get to know each other and fall in love over the internet. By the time this part comes to an end, we know both Noah and Sally, with their histories, quirks, foibles, and strengths very well. Noah invites Sally to Los Angeles for a visit.
Although in Chapter 3, the course of true love doesn’t always run smooth, it is very romantic. I even loved the way Curtis Sittenfeld stretched out the anticipation of their finally meeting in person again by devoting quite a few pages to her drive to L.A. When Sally finally arrives at Noah’s beautiful gated mansion off of Topanga Canyon Drive (yes, I Google Earthed it), they are both awkward and unsure despite their intimate emails. Their riding of the ups and downs of getting to know and love each other before the “consummation devoutly to be wished” is not tedious, as it can be with many romantic comedies sometimes. And it is not tedious after either while we read along wondering when and why the big bust-up is going to occur. Of course, Sally does her best to screw it up, but refreshingly, Noah doesn’t let her. He gives her a good talking to which was epic and the highlight of the book, for me. And she listens and believes him, much to my relief and wonderment. What finally threatens to part them was a real-life dilemma I understood and related to. It was not a silly misunderstanding, stupidity, or failure to communicate. What brings them back together is touching and utterly believable, given their well-established characters.
I requested this book because I really loved her Eligible, a reworking of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Cincinnati. While the main appeal to that one was my attraction to Jane Austen homages, it was clever, insightful, and entertaining. It wasn’t perfect plot-wise, but the characters and writing were engaging. This one reaffirmed Curtis Sittenfeld’s talents to me. I was intrigued by the concept and it was as juicy, amusing, and as authentic as I had hoped. Both Noah and Sally’s characters were drawn in depth and were both lovable in their own ways, even though I got mad at Sally a few times. My only quibble with this book is that Sittenfeld’s politics were just a bit too on display and kind of smug. It is a very very small quibble and probably very true to what the attitudes of a New York comedy writer and a successful Hollywood celebrity would really be. So I can’t really complain, I just wish it had been left out completely or balanced up a bit. Also, could we have had a bit less neurotic engagement with pooping and peeing? Pretend I didn’t say that but I had to.
Like all Romantic Comedies this one starts with a meet-cute and ends with a happily ever after, but in between there is a lot of good stuff both expected and unexpected in addition to the romance. But the romance is the thing, make no mistake about that.
Many Thanks to NetGalley and Random House for providing me with a free copy of this novel in return for an unbiased review. The book will be published on April 4, 2023.