PEN/O.Henry 2012: Christine Sneed, “The First Wife” from New England Review, Winter 2010/11

New England Review, Winter 2010/11

New England Review, Winter 2010/11

How did it end? Before I say what it was like to be courted by him, to fall in love, however briefly or genuinely, I prefer to talk about the end because it is rarely ever given its due. It is the filmmaker’s and the writer’s most reliable trick to seduce us with the details of a marvelous and improbable coupling while hinting darkly that things did not end well, that some tragedy or tragic character flaw in one or both of the principals brought on a heart-breaking collapse. And when the collapse comes, it is rarely given more than a few pages, a few sodden minutes at the end of the film.

As a writer, Emma knows, of course, that endings must be earned by the story, that the seeds of the ending are sown by the beginning and nurtured by the middle. Does this story plant, nurture, earn its ending?

In fact there are two stories to consider: Emma’s marriage, and the story as written by Sneed. First, the story. It opens with this declaration:

The famous do resemble the unfamous, but they are not the same species, not quite. The famous have mutated, amassed characteristics – refinements or corporeal variations – that allow their projected images, if not their bodies themselves, to dominate the rest of us.

She then goes on to set up the backwards structure, or sort-of backwards. The timeline shifts around pretty freely. Section 2 begins with Anders’ background before shifting to the end of the marriage, delivered by Anders over the phone while he’s shooting a film somewhere in Canada. There’s more flashback musing, before moving back in section 6 to the actress Anders is leaving Emma for. I’m very fond of backwards-told stories; I can’t think offhand of any literary examples (suggestions welcomed) but remember a couple of TV episodes (thirtysomething, ER) that pulled it off fairly well. That isn’t what we have here, though, and I’ll admit I was disappointed.

And again, as with the Berry piece, I felt lectured to, like I was reading a precautionary tale: Do not marry a movie star. Ok, I’ll try to avoid that.

Throughout the middle, Emma reveals pieces of Anders’ character that hint he is not really such a catch. At their first lunch, she makes a clever joke, a play off of “What I really want to do is direct,” and he doesn’t get it. He proposed, with no forewarning, on The Tonight Show. His success just happened to him; he was discovered. Still, he’s reasonably thrifty for a celebrity, and she loves him. But:

If you are married to a man whom thousands, possibly millions of women believe themselves to be in love with, some of them, inevitably, more beautiful and charming than you are, it is not a question of if but of when.

There’s a universality to that statement that makes it ironic.

But back to endings. Does Emma’s marriage earn its ending? I’ll go to the ending of the story to answer that: Emma’s thoughts on their first night together:

This isn’t real, I kept thinking all of that night and the next morning. This is a joke, isn’t it?

Turns out, it was.

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3 responses to “PEN/O.Henry 2012: Christine Sneed, “The First Wife” from New England Review, Winter 2010/11

  1. Pingback: Christine Sneed: “The First Wife” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012) « Fail Better

  2. A joke indeed. I’m largely unimpressed with the awards so far – I can understand the New Yorker batting .200 (not that that’s not disappointing), but you’d expect a best of anthology — even one that has to compete for stories with BASS — to be able to do a little better. Or are our tastes just so specific that we’re unable to appreciate the so-called “diversity” offered by a magazine that pulls from all over? At least none of the ones we’ve shrugged at have been judge’s favorites.

    More specific thoughts, as usual, back on my blog.

    • Hi Aaron – It’s interesting that her upcoming “novel in stories” involves Hollywood people. I can see this working well in that setting. In the next P/O.H post, I finally admitted my disappointment with this volume so far. But I have hope things are about to get better. 😉

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