Sally Milz (sidenote: what an annoying authorial choice, just make it Mills), 36, is living out her dream as a staff writer on The Night Owls, a late night comedy institution that just so happens to air on Saturdays at 11:30pm, feature a celebrity host and a musical guest, and is run by a legendary figure who is good friends with all the big-name ’70s rockstars. Any resemblance to real people or television shows is purely coincidental, I’m sure.
Sally is used to the crazy schedule and has a couple of treasured friendships with castmembers. She’s not even bothered by the gross behavior of the male writers and cast anymore. There’s just one thing that sticks in her craw. Sally is pretty tired of seeing her average-looking male colleagues wind up dating and even marrying the beautiful, world-famous women who come on the show to host. After her officemate Danny Horst (the smart but smug host of Weekend Up-, I mean “News Desk”) starts dating a pop star, Sally writes a scathing sketch called “The Danny Horst Rule” about the phenomenon. In the sketch, the male host (a famous musician pulling double duty as host) dates a woman less conventionally attractive than he is, and both of them wind up being arrested for violating this supposed rule.
In a twist that only romcom logic could make possible, that host, Noah Brewster, happens to be very attracted to Sally, who finds herself unable to believe Noah’s attraction to her could be real. After she says something unnecessarily cruel to him at the after-after-party, she and Noah don’t speak for two years, until the Covid-19 pandemic strands both of them at home and they take to corresponding by email, explaining what happened that week and trying to see if they can rebuild their connection.
I had several big problems with this novel. As you can probably tell from my tone above, I found the one-to-one correspondence to Saturday Night Live irritating. It just seemed like a lazy choice, allowing the author to coast on the cultural pervasiveness of SNL without having to invent anything new. There is also the common problem of novels about comedians, comedy writers, etc.: there’s scant evidence on the page that Sally is actually funny. Occasionally, Sally will attempt to use humor to deflect out of insecurity, but there’s no real laughs to be had.
Sittenfeld is also bad at writing men. Noah is paper-thin and constantly speaks in clichés from therapy, a habit that doesn’t become tolerable just because Sittenfeld has Sally call it out a couple of times. There’s a decided lack of real conflict here. Noah is basically perfect and the biggest obstacles to the happily ever after are Sally’s insecurity about her supposedly being less attractive and one little moment of confusion involving a paparazzi photo.
I also really dislike the way Sittenfeld uses Covid as a plot device. I’m ambivalent in general to the pandemic showing up in works of art, but this is an egregiously bad example. Sittenfeld constantly includes references to Sally and Noah masking up, worrying about germs, making sure to stand six-feet-apart in stores, etc. It’s just excessive, and feels like an ineffectual attempt to convince the reader that Sally and Noah are good people. That’s doubly true for Sittenfeld’s ham-handed mentions of BLM protests and Sally’s concerns about being a white feminist. If these were better handled they could go towards characterization, but in Sittenfeld’s hands they add nothing to the narrative and just distract the reader.
I’ve enjoyed a few Reese’s Book Club choices, but sometimes I feel like the books are really just pitches to Hulu or Amazon in advance of a limited series order. Romantic Comedy has a buzzy premise that’s sure to set agents and casting directors buzzing, but it’s a poor excuse for literature.