‘Little Known Facts” is a quietly written novel about a Hollywood family startling in its ordinariness, considering that the father is a superstar. Renn Ivins is about 50, devastatingly handsome, already the winner of a best actor and best supporting actor Academy Award, and during the action of this book, he’s up for best director and best picture. He has a ex-wife, Lucy, who’s a successful pediatrician, and a second, much younger ex-wife, Melinda, whom he met on a set where she worked as a caterer. Now, as a dumped wife of a famous person, she has written a memoir about their marriage.
Renn and Lucy have two grown children: Anna, a high-achieving daughter who follows in her mother’s footsteps by getting her medical degree and planning to practice family medicine, and Billy, who is a source of irritation and worry to his parents. Billy can’t hold a job, nor does he want to. He spends his time competing with his father over girlfriends, the only activity in which he seems to take an interest. In an early chapter, Renn, on location in New Orleans, sends for Billy to work as his personal assistant. Billy’s plane has barely landed before he puts the moves on his father’s beautiful new girlfriend, and this obsession, this lustful itch, continues for the rest of the narrative. Anna, Renn’s so-called well-adjusted daughter, would seem to be above such foolishness, until she falls into the arms of her charismatic mentor, a glamorous doctor who is an emotional dead ringer for her dad.
This is an extremely interesting idea: looking at the dynamic that gets set up by one man who isn’t shy about strewing his cuteness and power around. (The one weak chapter concerns a prop master consumed with envy and hero worship who steals possessions one by one and sells them on the Internet.) The women here would seem just to want a piece of Renn, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The desire to follow the power that one enchanting male figure evokes is, well, universal. And it could have been written about any number of attractive, glamorous men: a U.S. senator, perhaps, or a professor of philosophy who gathers up students like goslings, or a writer such as Norman Mailer or Richard Ford, so darling in his trench coat. Or the boss, whoever he may be — just the guy in charge of your fate, who favors you with a smile as he passes you in the hall.
In fact, Christine Sneed, whose firstnovel this is, might have better chosen any one of the above instead of a movie star, because her knowledge of Hollywood and Southern California seems sketchy. For instance, when Anna runs into handsome Dr. Glass near the hospitalin Marina del Rey, he says, “I didn’t know you lived in Marina,” but no one would ever say that. It would have to be: “I didn’t know you lived in the Marina,” and by that little omission, the delicate structure of the novel shows a small crack. And that fissure provokes the reader to notice that the author talks about Los Angeles’s “highway” system, instead of its freeways. Soon, we’re counting up the number of times a person “blushes” (more than 10) and how often someone has “a crush” on someone else (at least 20). And then one begins to wonder: Is this actually how a real movie star would act? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Any one of these points seems like nitpicking, but such distractions add up. Sneed is an accomplished writer, but she needs some editors who know what they’re doing, and she needs to write what she has down pat, because these little flaws and tiny errors erode what could have been a lovely, even profound study of human longing and love.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
LITTLE KNOWN FACTS
By Christine Sneed
Bloomsbury. 292 pp. $25