New York Times Book Review (cover review with Teddy Wayne's The Lovesong of Jonny Valentine), February 24, 2013
"A Star's Circle"
By CURTIS SITTENFELD
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.