Rather like buses – you wait for ages then several come along in swift succession – my short story reviews seem be posted in clumps. A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Anna Noyes’ elegant Goodnight, Beautiful Women, attracted by the idea of a linked collection promised by the press release. It was its eye-catching title and the raft of endorsements for Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men which snagged my attention this time. It’s nice and meaty too – stories long enough to get your teeth into. Despite having reviewed several collections by now, I still find it hard to avoid turning the whole thing into a lengthy catalogue so forgive me if this post reads a little like a list.
The thirteen stories that comprise Sneed’s collection explore themes of fame, loneliness, love, family and marriage. ‘Beach Vacation’ sees a woman on holiday, unexpectedly alone with her cocksure handsome sixteen-year-old, coming face to face with her feelings for him. In ‘Clear Conscience’ a brother suffering the very public fallout of his acrimonious divorce has his loyalty stretched to breaking point. A woman reflects on marriage to a handsome movie star, the strangeness of sleeping with a man who so many desire and being in a glaringly spotlit relationship in ‘The First Wife’ while a young man may finally have emerged from the shadow of his father’s fame in the titular ‘The Virginity of Famous Men’. Recognition hits a lonely divorced call centre worker when her newly married colleague appears to be straying, a sixteen-year-old learns the lesson in compassion set by her mother and a woman finds herself charmed by a ghost but comes to understand that a prosaic living lover is better than an overly attentive dead one. These are a small sample of what’s on offer in this collection which grabs your attention and keeps it.
Sneed writes with a clear-eyed sensibility and perception: ‘These murdered women were not their responsibility, the General argued, despite their self-conferred role as the planet’s conscience’ lays bare the hypocrisy of politicians in ‘The Functionary’. She has a keen yet empathetic awareness of the messiness of human vulnerability often leavening her stories with a dash of humour: ‘It went all right, overall, because he didn’t do anything too stupid’ thinks Michael in ‘Clear Conscience’ contemplating his epitaph. After trying her very best for sixteen years a woman is faced with the realisation that ‘it seemed possible that she had turned into a terrible mother’ in ‘Beach Vacation’. Just one foot put wrong for me and that was the slapstick comedy of ‘The New, All-True CV’, in which a job applicant reveals all – a great idea but a little too long. An interesting collection, then, deserving of all those starry endorsements.