You might wonder why Christine Sneed titled her novel Little Known Facts. Sounding like an encyclopedia that children could use to trip up their teachers, it might not seem like a book you would pick up and read. But take a chance on it. You will not be disappointed. It is clear-eyed, witty, and acutely insightful. Here are the first lines from the first paragraph: “More times than he would care to count, Will has witnessed his father’s ability to silence a room merely by entering it. He has seen his father’s expression change in an instant from utter exhaustion to the bright, sometimes false pleasure of being the center of attention, the person on whom every pair of eyes is fastened, some with desire, others with envy.
The man at the center of attention is Renn Ivins, the Hollywood superstar around which his son Will, his daughter Anna, and his ex-wife Lucy orbit. We get to know Renn from their perspectives, as they parcel out little known facts not only about him but also about themselves and their relationships with each other. Through them, we discover they are not the only ones captivated by the centripetal force of celebrity, but it is they—Will, Anna, and Lucy—who create the dynamic that unfolds in each chapter until, finally, they escape his claustrophobic Harrison Ford stardom.
The dynamic always involves women—Renn’s women. There is the pairing of Will and Danielle until Danielle breaks up with Will and she and Renn find their way to each other. There is the pairing of Renn and Elise, a beautiful actress to whom he is engaged—only she is twenty-some years younger than he. There is the pairing of Will and Elise, who fall for each other though she can’t seem to break off with Renn until Renn has an affair with Will’s ex-girlfriend Danielle and Will falls in love with a Parisian woman. There is the pairing of Anna and Dr. Glass, “one of the attendings for her internal medicine rotations,” and old enough to be her father—a no, no if ever there was one. There is the pairing of Renn and his second ex-wife Michelle Byers, who gives away the store about who Renn really is. Only no one wants to believe the little known facts in her tell-all book. And then, finally, there is the pairing of Lucy and Michael, old friends from USC who coincidentally meet three decades later. This is how Lucy, the medical doctor, describes their chance encounter: “Now, three decades later, Michael appeared before me one morning a few weeks ago when I was at a bagel place on Colorado Boulevard where I sometimes buy a cup of coffee on my way to work.”
Each chapter builds on itself until the dysfunctional Renn Ivers’ family comes into focus at the end. Whether it is the rudderless twenty-six-year old son Will who travels to Paris, falls in love, and writes a screenplay; or the ambitious, steadfast medical student Anna who is about to upend her life; or the admirable doctor wife Lucy who finds happiness with a man she knew long ago—these are the believable characters who are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the father/husband they can’t seem to escape.
Sneed knows how to tell an irresistible story of fame and fortune and the dysfunction coursing through it, but she tells it without the derision that so often accompanies such a tale. Rather, Sneed draws her characters with an authenticity that is both admirable and revealing. And she does it with a sincerity that does not slip into caricature.