Rebel, Rebel: Curtis Sittenfeld
In this series, I explore the so-called rules of writing--and how great authors manage to break them!
The Book ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House/PRH)
This book! What a palate-cleanser! I read most of it while camping on the shores of Garibaldi Lake in the Canadian backcountry and routinely had to force myself to slow down so I wouldn't finish it before the end of the trip. I'd just finished Eleanor Catton's BIRNAM WOOD, which I admired deeply but which crushed my tender soul (blog post for another time), and was in the mood for something joyful. This fit the bill.
The novel, Sittenfeld's eighth, is about a writer named Sally Milz who works at an SNL-esque live comedy show. Not long after writing a sketch about how uber-successful, attractive women often date shlub-ish men, yet hot and successful men never seem to date less-attractive women, Sally hits it off with Noah Brewster, the handsome and wildly famous musical guest on this week's show. The connection fizzles--until a few years later, when the Covid-19 pandemic strikes, and the pair reconnect by email.
Which leads us to the "rule" Sittenfeld breaks so skillfully: Don't write about the pandemic.
Why you might want to follow the rules
Although opinions vary, I've heard a lot of agents and editors say they're not ready for Covid books. By this I mean that there isn't yet a huge appetite for novels with the pandemic at its center--a thriller set in the halls of the World Health Organization in March 2020, say, or women's fiction set in an overflowing ICU. Covid is still actively impacting a lot of folks, and readers may not be ready to re-experience these hardships in fiction.
There are exceptions, of course. Emily St John Mandel's SEA OF TRANQUILITY comes to mind. Publishers actually pushed up the release of Emma Donoghue's THE PULL OF THE STARS, set at the height of the 1918 flu pandemic, to capitalize on Covid. So it is possible.
Why it works to break the rules in this case
In ROMANTIC COMEDY, Covid is an instigating force that pushes the plot in a new direction--a sort of inciting incident that arrives halfway through. Both Sally and Noah suddenly have time to reflect on (i.e. obsess over) the lives they've led up to that point, including their missed connection years before. Once they become email pen-pals (which is DELIGHTFUL, by the way), Covid becomes the backdrop rather than the plot. This is key, in my view. The pandemic is the reality in which our characters are swimming, but it isn't the story itself.
I think this set-up also works because the unexpected romance between a popstar and an Average Jane provides such bright contrast against the gloom and trauma of Covid. It's pure escapism--a reverse NOTTINGHILL with a wry, feminist bent. Paradoxically, the result is a Covid book that allows us to leave Covid (and whatever other shit you're dealing with in life) behind. Now that's some smart writing!