Emily Henry’s Funny Story Has Lots of Heart But Too Little Mischief

Books Reviews Emily Henry
Emily Henry’s Funny Story Has Lots of Heart But Too Little Mischief

“Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it.” These words, penned by the great Nora Ephron, come from her autobiographical novel Heartburn. But they also cut to the heart of the contemporary romantic comedy and the particular obstacles its leads tend to face. It is not societal expectations, royal bloodlines, or vows of chastity that stand in the way of true love, but, rather, emotional baggage, self-protective humor, and the angst that comes from watching the three-little-dots on iMessage disappear without remark.

Novelist Emily Henry has drawn regular comparisons to Ephron, not least of all because Henry herself has cited Ephron as her “biggest influence.” In particular, she speaks to the “coziness of [Ephron’s] worlds,” but Henry’s characters also seem like they could sit down and talk with Ephron’s, if Harry and Sally were willing to fly out to Michigan for a lakeside dinner. Her leading ladies are not hollow impressions of avid readers (“You like fiction books?”); they think and talk like women more comfortable diving into a new novel than into a new relationship. Some readers might find this, as they say, relatable. Both the men and the women stumble, but their clumsiness is not always cute. As a master of the genre, Henry knows how to keep the stakes high but the vibe relatively light.

And because the best romantic comedies soothe audiences even as they surprise them, Henry has done her own spins on the classic tropes of the genre. Her debut romance for adults, and arguably her best novel, is Beach Read, which broke through with readers a few months into COVID lockdown. About two neighboring novelists (one romance, one “serious literary fiction”) who try to write in one another’s vein, Beach Read works as a kind of authorial mission for Henry on how the literary and the generic can exist in blissful, sexy harmony. It is also, happily, a variation on one of my personal favorites: the ol’ “that scowl he’s been giving you for ten years is actually a smolder – he’s loved you all along, you insecure goddess!” Her follow-up, People We Met on Vacation, is a best friends-to-lovers tale, Book Lovers rivals-to-lovers, and Happy Place a non-screwball comedy of remarriage.

We all—we being “consumers of romance”—have our favorite plots, and Funny Story promised to follow one of mine: the pretend-lovers storyline. A tale as old as Shakespeare (sort of), what makes the pretend-lovers romance so enticing is the simmering sexual tension, typically accompanied by the prickliness or hostility that comes with a bad first impression or a grudge: it’s The Wedding Date, the Leap Year, the Anyone But You of it all. But it also speaks to Ephron’s wisdom, namely that we are all unskilled at love, that we are all faking it, that we could all use a little practice before love goes live.

This is the promise of Funny Story, if not entirely the premise. Funny Story follows Daphne Vincent, a children’s librarian who uproots to follow Peter, her picture-perfect fiance, to his picaresque hometown of Waning Bay, Michigan. In real life, I am sure a woman has probably changed her life for the love of an athletic, carb-avoidant, serial monogamist and been the happier for it, but this is a blissfully escapist fantasy that has to begin with a tire fire from which Daphne can rise, phoenix-style.

When Peter unceremoniously dumps Daphne for his childhood best friend, classic pick-me girl Petra, our shy, friendless librarian moves in with the only other person she knows in town: Petra’s ex, a messy-haired sommelier who smells like weed and possibility. Unlike “TV handsome” Peter, the equally heartbroken Miles is “the kind that’s disarming enough that you don’t feel nervous talking to him… until–wham! Suddenly he’s smiling at you with his messy hair and impish smirk.” Henry luxuriates in her descriptions of Miles, spending minimal time on Daphne’s appearance, except to say that she has chestnut-brown hair; this is just to say, the author knows her audience. 

Miles is self-aware to boot, listening to Daphne describe the Cool Girl phenomenon only to crack, “I just realized I’m a cool, laid-back girl.” Though the book belongs to Daphne and is, in fact, narrated in her voice – first-person, present-tense, funny and intimate – the side characters in Funny Story come through especially strongly, especially Daphne’s mother, her single mom friend Ashleigh, and Miles’ quirky sister Julia. As Daphne deliberates whether to stay in Waning Bay or flee the scene of her romantic devastation, Henry creates a world that is charming, beautiful, and welcoming without being Hallmark saccharine. (No cupcake shops are in danger of closing… on Christmas.) 

But where Funny Story fails to deliver is on the pretend-lovers front, and the book ultimately amounts to another friends-to-lover story in the mold of People We Met on Vacation. In the book’s first act, Daphne, having garnered a pity invite to Peter and Petra’s wedding, panic-lies to her ex that she and Miles are in love. The pretend-lovers plotline proves to be something of a red herring. Apart from Peter and Petra, with whom Daphne and Miles have a few awkward run-ins and but one staged smooch, the two are very honest about their relationship status (except in their own hearts). Rather than convincing others that they’re the real deal, it more often goes the other way.

This means no tingly slow dances at a sumptuous, excessively beige rehearsal dinner; no questions of who sleeps in the hotel bed, who in the bathtub, (or how they might share…); no blundering improvised telling of their meet-cute for their exes’ benefit. The title Funny Story might suggest more hijinks than actually ensue, as the novel focuses its energy on shepherding two lovable, imperfect people having steamy interactions in between resolving their childhood traumas and reclaiming their Main Character Energy. 

As always, Henry knows what she’s doing with Funny Story, but in making Daphne, Miles, and Waning Bay feel real and poignant, she misses out on the opportunity for a few more shenanigans. It’s okay to play pretend: as Ephron might (hopefully) undersign, sometimes, in the course of true love, you have to fake it ‘til you make it.

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