Curtis Sittenfeld’s new fun novel “Romantic Comedy” is not, ostensibly, about Jews. To use a great Britishism, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It tells a story of two people who meet, like each other, face various obstacles (mostly of their own creation), get over their obstacles, have a lot of sex, and live happily ever after in a grand castle (mansion in Topanga, same same)—with a bundle of laughs along the way.
But there is a jangle (Jewish angle) here.
Sally Milz, the heroine of this romantic comedy, is not Jewish. Neither is her love interest, Noah Brewster. Although Sally gives off major New York/neurotic/Jewish humor vibes and declines her stepdad’s pork steaks in favor of veggie burgers, Sally and Noah are both self-identified WASPs, a point repeated throughout the novel. Still, their romance turns on the “Danny Horst” rule, and Danny—and all the others who exist for the purpose of creating this rule—most certainly is Jewish.
Sally and Danny Horst work at “The Night Owls,” or “TNO,” a very thinly fictionalized version of “Saturday Night Live.” In the prologue of the novel, Sally discovers, to her distress, that Danny and recent “TNO” guest Annabel Lily are dating. What annoys Sally is this: “Annabel Lily was a gorgeous, talented, world-famous movie star, and Danny was a shlub.” The Yiddishism is surely not incidental; Danny, we are told, comes from an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Danny is “pasty-skinned” and talks about his social anxiety and porn consumption. He worries publicly about his hair loss and burps at work meetings. Annabel, in contrast, has a “slender yet curvy body” and long red hair that gets styled in “old Hollywood waves.” According to Sally, this uneven pairing could only happen in one direction: with the nerdy guy and glamorous woman. Sittenfeld doesn’t name them, but they come to mind anyway: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.” Larry David and Cheryl Hines on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” All the Phillip Roth protagonists and all their shiksa goddesses.
Reviewing the evidence borne out of her workplace, Sally gives three examples of the Danny Horst rule, which all involve, she says, a “bona fide female celebrity” and a male staff member. In addition to Danny Horst and Annabel Lily, there is couple number two: “icy blonde Oscar-winning British actress … Imogen Wagner” and staffer “Josh Beekman, best known for his recurring character [on “TNO”], Backne Guy.” And number three: “Elliot Markovitz (five-foot-eight, forty, and [her] Topsider-wearing boss)” who “married a multi-platinum-album-selling pop singer named Nicola Dornan (five-foot-ten, thirty, and a special envoy for the UN).” Sally emphatically believes that “Such couples would never exist with a gender switch.” Of course, it’s not only gender that divides the Elliots from the Nicolas. What she doesn’t say is that all these relationships comprise a Jewish staff member and a very not Jewish celebrity.
Nonetheless, beginning with the supposition that the gender switch is impossible, Sittenfeld, unsurprisingly, comes to show that the impossible is possible, and that the only thing holding (Jew-ish WASP) Sally back from true love with surfer-dude pop star (WASPy WASP) Noah Brewster is her own lack of confidence.
In the first section, which makes good use of Sittenfeld’s research into “Saturday Night Live,” we witness Sally’s (Sittenfeld’s) cleverness. The sketches that Sally devises for “TNO” are funny and smart. Noah arrives as a guest on the show, and the sparks between Sally and Noah fly.
Then COVID hits, and in the second section, the characters are back home, isolated, living in/on/through their computers. Moving from first-person narration, full of reflective analyses, and action that takes place in a bustling office building, the novel thrusts readers into the circumscribed experience of 2020, and the story proceeds to unfold in epistolary fashion, limiting our perspective to the ways that the characters attempt to represent themselves to each other. Sally and Noah’s relationship-as-email-exchange feels true to pandemic living (I want to add “unfortunately,” as in, this all feels too soon to me!). It also feels true to its generic tradition. Think 1998 classic rom-com “You’ve Got Mail,” with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks tapping away in their AOL accounts or their analog pen-pal predecessors in the 1940 film “The Shop Around the Corner”!
Finally, the reunion. I know this is kind of a spoiler but the thing about working within the confines of a formula is that the outcome is set from page one. So, I won’t ruin the ending, but, you know what happens. That said, not all Danny Horsts end up with their Annabel Lilys. The original Danny Horst, in fact, ends up with a down-to-earth (but gorgeous) Jewish graduate of Brown, who is also the daughter of the Nigel Peterson, Sittenfeld’s Lorne Michaels (born Lorne David Lipowitz) stand-in.
“Romantic Comedy” is not a deep novel, and, despite its feminist-rage premise, it’s unlikely to change the state of gender roles and expectations going forward. And with Sally not being Jewish (but only Jew-ish), the novel is also unlikely to cause film and television writers to radically rethink their Harry Goldblatt/Charlotte York pairings, though I admit I haven’t even finished the first season of “And Just Like That,” so what do I know?
In any case, for lovers of the romance genre, it’s a delightful read.
Karen E. H. Skinazi, Ph.D, is Associate Professor of Literature and Culture and the director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol (UK) and the author of Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.