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Novel 'Romantic Comedy' explores desirability, entertainment and writing as a cure

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Romantic comedies can often get a bad rep. For the few truly great ones out there, there are a lot of releases that just fall flat due to poor execution. The storyline is just a little too cute or cheesy. The writing is totally cringe. The person at the center is unrelatable. But here's a secret - I love a good, satisfying romantic comedy, and so does author Curtis Sittenfeld. She says that for a rom-com to really work...

CURTIS SITTENFELD: It has to be plausible, and there has to be some genuine connection between the two people. And then if they have sparkling, witty banter between them, that never hurts.

SUMMERS: Sittenfeld's latest book called "Romantic Comedy" opens on the set of a sketch comedy show that's a lot like "Saturday Night Live." The book explores what happens when sparks fly between a writer named Sally and Noah, a pop star who's a celebrity guest host on the show. I started by asking Sittenfeld to tell me more about Sally.

SITTENFELD: So Sally is very successful professionally. She was married in her early 20s and divorced and has been single for a while and is sort of settling romantically but is, you know, ambitious professionally.

SUMMERS: And we should just point out here that Sally is also a Midwesterner, like the two of us. I grew up in Kansas City, like Sally. You grew up in Ohio, and you seem to keep coming back to Midwestern women in your writing.

SITTENFELD: I do. And I think that sometimes I crave reading about a kind of Midwesterner that I don't always see in pop culture, which is nuanced, intelligent, observant but also maybe messed up women that I enjoy reading about and that I know.

SUMMERS: Yeah, I was going to say, Sally felt like somebody that I could have grown up with, that I'd probably be friends with, like to go have a cocktail with at some point.

SITTENFELD: I think she would love to have a cocktail with you.

SUMMERS: Before we get into the rest of the book, there is this one line in the prologue that I want to ask you about, and it comes up when Sally tells us that she has just learned that her best friend, Danny, who also works on the show, has begun to date this drop-dead gorgeous movie star named Annabel. And Sally writes that, just as she always did, she turned her feelings into comedy, and that's how she'd cure herself. And I want to ask you, Curtis, does writing cure you in any way?

SITTENFELD: (Laughter) I wish it did because then I'd be cured after having written seven novels or eight novels. I don't even know. I would say it does not cure me, but it does help me. I mean, I think it's how I work through a lot of my confusion. I mean, including in romantic comedy, it's pretty common for men to date up. And I think that a part of me was like, what's up with that? What's going on? And writing this novel allowed me to kind of grapple with my own confusion about being a person and knowing other people.

SUMMERS: And that dynamic that you're talking about, of who dates up and who dates down, that really comes to a head at the beginning of this book in the sketch that Sally pitches, and it's called The Danny Horst Rule. Walk us through it. Tell us about it.

SITTENFELD: Well, I'm a big fan of "SNL." I've been watching it off and on my whole life. And there is a phenomenon in recent years or a pattern where men from the show who are talented but seem, you know, somewhat ordinary end up dating women who are musical guests or guest hosts on the show who are just these kind of transcendently beautiful, talented goddesses who are household names and, you know, at the top of their game. You could say, for instance, Colin Jost and Scarlett Johansson or perhaps, you know, Pete Davidson ended up dating both Ariana Grande and Kim Kardashian.

And so in the book, the main character, Sally, writes this sketch kind of saying, this doesn't seem to happen when the genders are switched. It doesn't happen that an essentially ordinary woman, no matter how clever she is on the page, dates a smoking hot male celebrity. And I think that's true, again, for celebrities. But I think a lot of us in our social circles can also probably say, yeah, we know heterosexual couples where it seems like the man is perhaps dating up. But it's harder to find examples where the woman is dating up.

SUMMERS: And at this point, I think it's important to introduce another character that readers will meet, and that is Noah Brewster, this pop music sensation, who, to me at least, reads as pretty conventionally smoking hot, famous, got a ton of money. And at the point at which we meet him, he is the show's musical guest and guest host. Tell us a little bit about him.

SITTENFELD: So when Sally meets Noah, you know, she thinks - he's been famous for almost 20 years. He's in his late 30s, like she is. And I think she thinks, oh, he's handsome, but he's so cheesy. His music is cheesy. He's cheesy. And then they work together on a sketch, and they have this kind of, you know, bantering way of talking to each other. And she thinks like, oh, no, he's actually really smart and down to Earth and interesting. And, like, is he into me? And then she freaks out because it sort of upends her view of the world. And she has to kind of grapple with her own low self-esteem when this swoonily (ph) handsome, charming man starts to indicate that, in fact, he is into her.

SUMMERS: Yeah, this whole tension around desirability was so interesting to me. I mean, I find Sally incredibly relatable, and listening to her seem to contort herself to see this as almost too good to be true, the idea that a person like Noah could find her attractive and desirable, she seems to want to just not believe it.

SITTENFELD: Yeah, I think that she has internalized these various messages, you know, like she's sort of smart more than she's pretty. And so when there's this direct evidence contradicting her beliefs, like there is this smoking hot, delightful man who's very interested in her, and that, in some ways, the greatest - not to spoil anything, the greatest risk of the book is her sort of sabotaging her chance at this bliss that she has always thought would only be in movies or is only for other people.

SUMMERS: So to that point, I thought it was really interesting that you didn't lean out of those challenges. A key part of this book actually takes place in those awful, uncertain, early, scary months of the pandemic. And it's during that part of the book that you see Sally and Noah really learn about who each other are, to develop a closeness through these cross-country emails. Without giving too much away, she is in Kansas City. She's left New York, and she's riding out the pandemic there. And Noah is in California. I am curious - why emails? Are you just, like, trying to keep your inner Jane Austen alive in the 2020s?

SITTENFELD: (Laughter) Well, I'm always trying to keep my inner Jane Austen alive. I mean, it was - I think partly - Sally is a writer and she gets this opportunity when they're writing these long emails to be sort of her sparkling, clever self, but also the reader gets to experience what the characters experience because that whole section is just emails. And so the reader feels like, is one of them flirting? Like, is that ambiguous? Is that a factual statement or is that putting a feeler out to the other person? And I just thought that would be, again, fun. Like, it would be, like, you know, feeling like reading someone else's flirty emails, like, that would be my idea of a good time.

SUMMERS: We've been talking with author Curtis Sittenfeld. Her new book is "Romantic Comedy." Thank you so much for being here.

SITTENFELD: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAIRY QUEEN")

INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) Hey, I love you, I love you more and more. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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