Love is a many hindered thing.
It’s thwarted at every turn, imperiled every second, and the fact that it works out for anybody anywhere for any length of time whatsoever is an absolute miracle ― yet here we all are, fools for love, chasing the emotion as if it were a runaway puppy heading for the highway at rush hour.
While it can produce pain and frustration, love also produces something else: great fiction.
Romance-related snafus are at the heart of a smartly arch new story collection by Christine Sneed, a Chicago-based author of uncommon narrative skill and nuanced psychological acuity. In story after story in “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry” (University of Massachusetts Press), her characters fall in love, fall out of love and try to figure out why. They seethe and they burn. They suffer and rejoice.
Christ ine Sneed, author of “Portraits of a Few of the People I ’ve Made Cry,” at DePaul University, in Chicago, Illinois, where she is a faculty member.(Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
They sit and wait. In most cases, they think altogether too much.
Love, of course, is a theater, the best arena we have for highlighting the human tendency toward emotional self-destruction. Sneed carefully arranges each story on that stage, and the brisk little dramas are insightful, moving, funny, sometimes brilliant.
Along the way, she offers wincingly accurate pictures of Chicago in all seasons, including the gloomy one that’s just around the corner. “We were exhausted and cynical under cloudy skies,” grouses the narrator in “Twelve + Twelve,” “our pants cuffs perpetually caked in grit and mud, our car tires spinning and spinning on snow-choked streets.”
The narrator is “stuck in an ugly, listless March, ice visible everywhere and clinging to our lawns like a dense gray scum.” Not only that, but the narrator also must put up with creepy visits from her new boyfriend’s ex-wife.
In the story “Alex Rice Inc.,” a young English professor at a Chicago university that sounds very much like DePaul discovers that a Hollywood star has decided to return to his hometown and ― you guessed it ― enroll in her class. The story is beautifully told. The teacher’s internal monologue of self-deprecation (“She is a teacher, a necessary nuisance in their trajectory through four years of sex and drinking and perfunctory study”) is interrupted by this strange new fact in her world: A famous man, handsome and charming, is sitting in her classroom. What now?
The best story in the book is “Quality of Life,” a cross between a lighthearted romantic movie like “Pretty Woman” and an eerie, baffling “Twilight Zone” episode, the kind in which the tension builds by steady, unsettling degrees. A woman’s romantic relationship with a mysterious older man goes from intriguing to sinister, but so casually that she’s barely aware of the change ― until it’s too late. For Sneed, 39, an Evanston, Ill., resident, the collection is the culmination of many years of hard work. She toiled diligently at her craft, enduring rejections and periods of self-doubt because she believed she had something to say.
“The women in my book are caught in webs of habit and stereotype and expectation. These stories are about that moment of self-knowledge, when you learn things about yourself that you don’t like,” she said in an interview. “I try to write stories that I would want to read.”
Born in Wisconsin and raised in Libertyville, Sneed graduated from Georgetown University. She was a secretary in Chicago for several years before heading to Indiana University to earn a graduate degree in creative writing.
Since her return to Chicago, she has been teaching writing at DePaul.
Of writing stories, she said: “I’ve found a career that I adore. There’s such joy in it.”
Sneed sounds like a woman in love. Yet if the stories in her collection are any guide, that means she could be in for real trouble.
By Julia Keller
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)