• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    by Christine Sneed
  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
Wednesday
May202015

The Millions article by Philip Graham

Trouble Using Light: The Complications of Art in the Fiction of Christine Sneed

By  posted at 12:00 pm on May 20, 2015 0

Making art can gnaw at you, wake you up in the middle of the night, and promise you too many paths or none at all. Christine Sneed is a writer who, from the beginning of her career, has been drawn to characters who attempt art, whether it’s painting, acting, screenwriting, or sculpture. What adds a distinctive depth to her work is this added complication: in her stories and novels she reveals the changes that occur from this quest in not only the artist’s life, but in the lives of surrounding friends and family.

coverIn her first story collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry(winner of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction), we see Sneed play out the first examples of this obsession. In the title story, the painter and sculptor Antonio Martedi has been dead for over a year, and his granddaughter April still feels the force of his personality and art. Shortly before his death he gave her the present of three sketchbooks of his work, with a warning never to show them to anyone else, saying, “If I wanted someone other than you to have these notebooks, I would have sold them myself a long time ago or donated them to some art school library.”

April, a struggling scriptwriter, becomes involved with a young artist who has already achieved some minor success, but she’s never quite sure if his interest in her isn’t only a reciprocation of her own attraction, but also a disguised desire to “claim some part, no matter how doubtful, of her grandfather’s genius.” He particularly wants to see those private sketchbooks, and even if April suspects that she is being used, she is increasingly prepared to use her grandfather’s art to get what she wants.

coverThroughout this subtle, unsettling story, we see the dead Martedi and his art as described by the memories and interests of others, even through the critical summations of obituaries. Sneed’s first novel, Little Known Facts, in some ways seems like a tree grown from the seed of that short story. The central character, Renn Ivins, a Hollywood actor in his early 50s still enjoying a charmed career (fashioned by Sneed as an amalgam of perhaps Harrison Ford and George Clooney), is seen through the eyes of others in chapter after chapter. Lucy, his first wife, has never remarried; his second wife is writing a tell-all memoir; his son Will walks unprotected beneath the famous cloud of a father who has already won two Academy Awards and is well on his way to a third; Anna, his daughter, is a resident doctor who has begun an affair with a married doctor her father’s age. In each case their lives have been affected by the presence of Ivins’s well-rewarded talent and outsized fame. With every additional success that comes his way, his family members have to struggle against further diminishment.

Yet in the middle of the novel, Ivins himself is allowed to speak, through a secret diary that he keeps, and here the reader is offered the stone that has set so many ripples in motion. We eavesdrop on reflections and revelations not meant for us, and discover that, while Ivins balances a serious artistic work ethic with time he spends on charity work for Katrina victims, he also relies on a spiritual advisor to help him decide what scripts to accept, and that while he is publicly partnered with a celebrated young actress, he is also conducting a secret liaison with his son’s former girlfriend. It’s a complex portrait, and we see how his indulgences, blind spots, and well-crafted excuses for his behavior set in motion much of the toxic aftershocks of fame that are felt by his family. When Ivins, in writing in his diary about tragedy in film, observes that there is “so much poetry in sadness, a very different and possibly more potent variety than the kind of poetry you find in happiness,” he isn’t nearly as aware as he should be of the personal ironies of this insight.

It comes as a relief to see, in the final chapters, his family members beginning to take baby steps away from his emotional influence. His first wife, Lucy, has rediscovered a man who knew her before she became the wife of a famous actor; with increasing confidence Will is writing a screenplay; and Anna is beginning to take a closer look at her affair. But how strong are these steps? At book’s end, Ivins’s affair with his son’s ex-girlfriend is a revelation still waiting to be fully revealed, a foolish risk that may very well unsettle his family once again.

coverSneed’s latest novel, Paris, He Said, her most subtle and accomplished work to date, may seem at first to follow a similar narrative pattern. Jayne Marks is a young artist in New York who struggles through two dead-end jobs to simply pay her rent. Her budding career as a painter is slowly slipping away, until she meets Laurent Moller, the co-owner of the Paris art gallery Vie Bohème that is opening a branch in New York. Though Laurent is decades older than she, they quickly become lovers, and perhaps too quickly he invites Jayne to return with him to Paris and live together in his apartment.

It’s not just about the sex, or their easy way with each other. Laurent claims to see something in Jayne’s work worthy of being nurtured, and he offers her space — and time — in his Paris apartment to create a studio where she can work uninterrupted, without the cares of having to pay any bills. Though other cares take the place of concerns about money. Perhaps Jayne is merely a modern version of a kept woman, indulged in by her lover. Or he genuinely admires her work, but there is an unspoken contract in place, sexual comfort for the possible opportunity of a showing at Laurent’s Paris gallery.

The first third of Paris, He Said, is told from Jayne’s perspective, with all her undermining worries on display, mixed with her attraction to Laurent, her rediscovered ambitions as an artist, her love of Paris. Like Little Known Facts and the revelation of Ivins’s perspective in a central chapter, the middle section of Paris, He Said is devoted to Laurent’s attempt at a memoir. When I looked ahead at the novel’s table of contents, I have to confess to an increasing anticipation that Laurent’s section would reveal the truth of some of Jayne’s worries, or worse.

But Laurent turns out to be more complex than any bad guy disclosures might offer. A failed artist himself, he turned to displaying others’ art in a gallery he established with an inheritance from his family’s vineyards. With his gift for discerning artists whose talent is also salable, his gallery becomes a success, and Laurent takes it upon himself to become an informal patron of selected artists whose work he believes to be promising. Sometimes his hunches work out, sometimes not. Sometimes he mixes sexual attraction with his patronage, and he believes enough in his motives for supporting art not to be too concerned about this potentially compromising complication.

Jayne is his latest hunch. With the time to think out her art’s possibilities and apply those insights to canvas, her art flourishes and Laurent offers her a place in a group showing at the gallery. All might seem to be well, but in the third section of the novel the internal contradictions of her relations with Laurent can’t be sustained indefinitely. With a Gallic insouciance he continues — not secretly enough — meetings with a number of his former lovers (some of whom are also artists he supported). Jayne, eventually able to interpret his absences, finds herself drawn back to the still-devoted boyfriend she left for Laurent. The power of art alone can’t keep them together, and the way Sneed recounts the initial steps of Jayne and Laurent’s eventual estrangement is quietly devastating.

“Before you make up your mind about me, slashing an X through the box of my murky character, you should know there is more to the story,” Laurent writes in his memoir, but this sentence could apply to every character in Paris, He Said. Because Sneed never descends to an easy headline of revelation, or a plot twist that offers a finality of judgment, Paris, He Said is a brave book. Sneed offers, with quiet confidence, her characters’ increasing complexities. People, like the best art, deserve more than one interpretation. There is little black and white contrast in Sneed’s work, and she lingers in every gradation of shade in between, as if gray were a full palette of color. Lurking in the areas where easy judgments can’t survive, she builds up and undermines a character at the same time, creating an attractive surface with her prose that also fills us with disquiet.

Few fireworks here, instead a slow, unsettling burn.

Tuesday
May122015

BookPage Review of Paris, He Said

May 2015 issue, reviewed by Kelly Blewett

There is something irresistible about a talented American woman in Paris. She feels sexy and alive while strolling the city’s streets, confident the world will unfurl in her hand like a blossoming flower. 

Such young women are featured in new books by Kate Betts and Christine Sneed, and both tell wonderful stories—one true, one fictional—about taking risks and pursuing dreams abroad.

Betts’ memoir, My Paris Dream, recalls her years in the city of light after graduating from Princeton in the 1980s. Her Paris was a ladder whose climb began with freelance writing assignments for travel magazines and culminated with a position as a fashion editor and associate bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily. Betts, who later became the editor of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, is an instantly likable storyteller. She takes you to the Parisian boulevards and describes in terrific detail what people were wearing. Perhaps occasionally too much detail. “Only the French could invent seamless stockings that stay up with a rubber sticky band that grips the upper thigh,” she writes. As a young woman looking to make a good impression, she bought several pairs. “Fashion is tribal,” she explains. “It’s not about who you are but where you belong.” This is a story of how one American woman came to belong in the fashion capital of Europe, and how she wrote about that world for an American audience. Along the way, Betts made some terrific friends, fell in love and witnessed the world of style up close during a time of major transition. Full of slangy French, delectable food and swoon-worthy fashion, Betts’ memoir is well worth the read.

If Betts’ Paris is a ladder, then Sneed’s is an escape hatch. Jayne Marks, the protagonist of Sneed’s novel, ParisHe Said, is an aspiring artist in New York who can’t find time to paint. Then she meets gallery owner Laurent Moller. Decades older and maybe a little too suave, Laurent sweeps Jayne away to Paris to be his girlfriend and to live in his luxurious apartment. In her new life, Jayne has hours each day to paint, cook and work in Laurent’s French gallery, which is located on the same street as the Louvre. “I am closer to my twenty-year-old self here,” she thinks, “closer than I am at home.” Yet she finds it hard to settle into such a decadent existence. Can she maneuver the complexities of Laurent’s social world? Will her paintings ultimately be any good? Is Laurent being totally faithful to her? And why can’t she stop thinking about her ex-boyfriend in New York? Sneed, whose previous novel, Little Known Facts, drew considerable acclaim, expertly keeps the pages turning in this delightful novel. Paris, He Said offers readers, too, an entertaining escape from the mundanities of daily life. With clever and graceful prose, Sneed deftly guides a story that explores whether satisfaction follows when all one’s deepest wishes come true.

Tuesday
May122015

O Magazine review of Paris, He Said

Available at: Amazon.com | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound
Eight years out of college, would-be artist Jayne Marks finds herself in New York, struggling at day jobs that leave neither the time nor the inspiration to pursue her own painting. Suddenly her latest beau, Laurent Moller, a wealthy French gallery owner, offers to whisk her away to Paris to live rent-free and pursue her art. Though old enough to be her father, Laurent is handsome (Jayne notes his resemblance to George Clooney) and an attentive lover. In true French fashion, though, he also favors a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on extracurricular affairs. Her discomfort over this, along with increasingly fond memories of a more conventional relationship she'd had back home, make it difficult for Jayne to make this lush new life her own. Sneed is very good at elucidating the doubts that plague many women when it comes to their careers. "Why do you make a joke of your ambition?" Laurent asks Jayne. "It isn't a joke." This frothy novel, about sex and secrets in the city of light, contains many observations about womanhood, personhood and the ever elusive but never-too-late-to-learn "knack for happiness." --Julia Pierpont



Read more: http://www.oprah.com/book/Best-Books-of-Spring-Paris-He-Said#ixzz3ZxhD0zbo

Sunday
Jul072013

New York Times Book Review (cover review with Teddy Wayne's The Lovesong of Jonny Valentine), February 24, 2013

I suspect I’m not alone in feeling as if, at some point, I accidentally earned a Ph.D. in Brangelina. It’s not just that I can tell you the names of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s six children; I also can tell you their birth order and country of origin. I could write a dissertation, or perhaps teach a graduate seminar, on Pitt and Jolie’s past relationships, political activism and respective tattoos.

How has this information attained permanence in my brain when there is so much else I can’t remember, of both the “where are my keys” and the “what’s a mortgage backed security again” varieties? While I respect Jolie and Pitt’s humanitarian work, I’m not exactly a fan of either of them, nor do I faithfully see their movies. In general, my celebrity expertise — which is hardly limited to this particular couple — makes me vacillate between defensiveness and shame.

On the one hand, is following the personal lives of good-looking actors any more pointless or shallow than following professional sports? Aren’t most celebrities complicit in their own exposure? And how about the research indicating that humans are biologically programmed, from our Stone Age roots, to gossip? Certainly among my female friends, celebrities provide ample conversational fodder, especially if we don’t have co-workers or neighbors in common to analyze and dissect. On the other hand, the fact that I can describe the locket of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood that Jolie wore around her neck during their marriage but don’t know the name of China’s president — should I be able to live with myself?

The good news for anyone who shares my predicament is that Christine Sneed has written a novel just for us: “Little Known Facts” is juicy enough to appeal to our prurience but smart enough not to make us feel dirty afterward.

At the book’s center is the 50-something movie star Renn Ivins, an idol along the lines of Harrison Ford, or George Clooney if he had adult children. When the novel begins, Renn is directing a movie he hopes will win him an Oscar or two. Twice-divorced, he’s dating his hot and talented 24-year-old lead actress, who’s close in age to Renn’s daughter, Anna, a medical student, and Renn’s son, Will, who, gripped by the inertia of the pampered, mostly does nothing.

Not surprisingly, Renn is the defining presence in the lives of his family members. Watching his father and a companion head to a restaurant, Will thinks that if he joined them, “no one would really notice him. He would feel as incidental as the salt and pepper shakers, part of the scenery and not even an important part.” Yet in spite of Renn’s outsize influence, Sneed chooses not to grant him a disproportionate number of pages in the novel. Of the 11 storylike chapters, just one concentrates primarily on Renn. Meanwhile, Will and Anna get two each, as does their pediatrician mother. (The remaining four go to Renn’s girlfriend, Elise; Renn’s second ex-wife; Will’s girlfriend; and a crew member on Renn’s movie.)

Of Los Angeles, the crew member explains: “If you want to be rich and famous, this probably isn’t the best place to start, paradoxical as that must sound. You would probably be better off writing screenplays and making short films in Omaha or Minneapolis for a while and approaching Hollywood from an oblique angle instead of head-on like I did.”

As it happens, in withholding the movie star from a novel about a movie star, Sneed herself often employs an oblique approach to Hollywood. Instead of giving readers what we’d most expect — a scene at an awards ceremony, say, or a character overdosing in a hot tub — Sneed offers details about the film industry and fame mainly as background. Some of these details are informative, like the placement of a boom mic or the precise responsibilities of a propmaster. Other details are more titillating: Renn’s habit of ignoring the strangers who take photos of him with their cellphones, Elise’s deflection of a director’s advances by pretending to be religious. But Sneed’s real interest isn’t the treachery of Hollywood; it’s the more universal treachery of the human heart. Repeatedly, Renn and

Repeatedly, Renn and his children make romantic choices as ill advised as they are understandable. That they themselves recognize their own mistakes neither prevents nor solves them.

One of Sneed’s most impressive feats, which justifies the decision to alternate points of view rather than staying with a single protagonist in a deeper and more sustained way, is that the characters appear believably different from different perspectives. In his parents’ eyes, Will is basically a wastrel. But in the eyes of Elise, Renn’s actress girlfriend, Will is like a younger, less egotistic version of Renn; Sneed makes a case for why the unaccomplished son might be a more desirable boyfriend than his successful father.

Sneed is an intelligent and graceful writer, and the elegance of her prose, coupled with her sure-handed observations about human folly, tends to obscure the fact that not all that much happens in most chapters. Major plot developments — breakups, movie premieres — are likelier to occur between chapters than in them. Much of the novel is summary as opposed to real action, but it’s a testament to Sneed’s gifts that it rarely feels stagnant; on the contrary, her sentences are strangely hypnotic, casting a spell that makes it hard to put the book down.

Less successful is the atypical structure of three chapters. Rather than straightforward narrative, they appear as, respectively, an imaginary interview between a propmaster and Renn; notes for a memoir by Renn’s second ex-wife; and a transcript of a recording Renn makes for “an authorized biographer after my death.” Reminiscent of the derailed celebrity interview in Jennifer Egan’s “Visit From the Goon Squad,” the propmaster’s imagined interview fails to cohere; that it never took place, even within the made-up world of the novel, is one contrivance too many.

In general, however, Sneed is such a gifted writer that she can get away with a lot. Indeed, “Little Known Facts” is the kind of book that makes you curious about its author and how she came to tell this particular story. Although it’s Sneed’s first novel, she wrote the critically acclaimed 2010 collection “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” in which a couple of stories also revolve around characters in the entertainment industry.

When I finished “Little Known Facts,” I looked at Sneed’s Web site, and only after not finding them did I realize I’d been searching for mentions of her experience working in film, or, at the least, living in Los Angeles. Instead, I learned that she earned an M.F.A. from Indiana University and currently resides in Evanston, Ill.

I still don’t know if Sneed has firsthand ties to Hollywood, but I’ll say this: I’ve spent years of my life reading People magazine, as well as its more sordid counterparts, and her depiction of both proximity to celebrity and celebrity itself had me totally convinced.

 

Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, “Sisterland,” will be published in June.

Also read at NYT.com here.

 

Saturday
Feb092013

Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 10, 2013

Christine Sneed’s impressive debut novel, “Little Known Facts,” is a Hollywood tale that aspires to complicate the traditional Hollywood narrative. Its characters want to swap sincerity for surface, real anxiety for contrived problems. But these dream-factory occupants, Sneed suggests, have a hard time telling one from the other.

At the novel’s core is Renn Ivins, an aging yet still virile actor-director who’s making a play for an Oscar with a film about post-Katrina New Orleans. His celebrity is a kind of human tractor beam: He’s “an institution, a movement, a cult with numerous irrational adherents,” as one of his ex-wives puts it. Shifting among different voices in Renn’s life, Sneed constructs a kind of cubist portrait of the man. For Renn’s daughter, he’s a model for her own ill-advised romances. For the Katrina film’s female lead, he’s a romantic dream. To another ex-wife, he’s a preening narcissist. And for his son, Will, the novel’s emotional center, he’s what keeps him from pursuing anything ambitious, lest he fall short of dad’s glory.

“His main goal each day is to resist inertia,” Sneed writes of Will, and the plot of the novel is largely about his efforts to generate his own forward momentum. He drifts from working with dad on-set to making an adolescent play for dad’s girlfriend to running off to Paris to distance himself from Renn’s ­impossibly large shadow.

No cataclysmic surprises spill out of that effort: Sneed’s prose is clean and dry as L.A. air, unadorned and disinterested in musical effects. The book thrives instead on Sneed’s skill at conjuring multiple voices. Each of its 11 chapters focuses on a different character, and Sneed is remarkably attuned to the way each person postures to present him- or herself in the best possible light. An excerpt from wife No. 2’s memoir encapsulates the tell-don’t-show style of Hollywood gossip, while Will’s chapters evoke the subtle pleading and self-pity of a rudderless man. Renn himself is bare-chested, arrogant and guilt-ridden: He confesses that he keeps two journals, like a corrupt bookkeeper.

“I wonder this — if you don’t have to struggle, why would you?” Will’s mother and Renn’s first wife asks. Money isn’t a concern for any of the people in this novel, but they’re unstable regardless. “Little Known Facts” is a kind of romance novel — Topic A for everybody is where their lusts and affections are best served. But there’s little contrived sweetness in this book, just a recognition that the Hollywood glamour that was supposed to make everything easy in fact made everything harder.

Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at markathitakis.com.