A version of the following was previously published as a Starred Review in Shelf Awareness for Readers (July 15, 2014). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
In his second novel, Arts and Entertainments, Christopher Beha (What Happened to Sophie Wilder) shifts his setting from the world of writers to that of unscripted reality television, but those worlds aren’t really as different as they might seem. They’re both about crafting stories; they just use different tools to do it.
When he left St. Albert’s School, “Handsome Eddie” Hartley thought that he and his girlfriend Martha Martin both had long careers of acting out other people’s stories ahead of them, but he was wrong. Fifteen years later, Martha is a household name with a hit TV drama, while Eddie is back at St. Albert’s, halfheartedly teaching drama and struggling nearly as hard to start a family with his wife, Susan, as he once did with his acting career. And a struggling schoolteacher who happens to possess a sex tape he made with his ex-girlfriend, who has since become a huge TV star, just might have a way to pay for his wife’s infertility treatments.
When Eddie sells his old video of Martha to an internet entrepreneur, he’s not thinking about any consequences other than funding his and Susan’s efforts to have a baby. He certainly never imagines that they’ll lead to a high-risk pregnancy played out on social media and reality TV, or that his role of a lifetime will be an edited-for-broadcast version of himself.
Beha’s sharp observations of crafted, carefully produced versions of private lives becoming public property resonate in an time when it sometimes feels like a life unexamined by other people isn’t a life properly lived…or worth living, for that matter. Arts and Entertainments is indeed entertaining, but it’s also a thoughtful examination of how we shape our own stories.
“Handsome Eddie” Hartley was once a golden boy poised for the kind of success promised by good looks and a modicum of talent. Now thirty-three, he has abandoned his dream of an acting career and accepted the reality of life as a drama teacher at the boys’ prep school he once attended. But when Eddie and his wife, Susan, discover they cannot have children, it’s one disappointment too many.
Weighted down with debt, Susan’s mounting unhappiness, and his own deepening sense of failure, Eddie is confronted with an alluring solution when an old friend-turned-Web-impresario suggests Eddie sell a sex tape he made with an ex-girlfriend, now a wildly popular television star. In an era when any publicity is good publicity, Eddie imagines that the tape won’t cause any harm—a mistake that will have disastrous consequences and propel him straight into the glaring spotlight he once thought he craved.
A hilariously biting and incisive takedown of our culture’s monstrous obsession with fame, Arts & Entertainments is also a poignant and humane portrait of a young man’s belated coming-of-age, the complications of love, and the surprising ways in which the most meaningful lives often turn out to be the ones we least expected to lead.
“‘You know who I saw on TV last night?’ John Wilkins asked the small group of old friends surrounding him. ‘Dr. Drake.’
“They’d been drinking in the St. Albert’s library for less than half an hour. Eddie was surprised it had taken even that long for the name to come up.
“‘The show’s in syndication,’ he said. ‘It’s on every day.’
“‘Not Dr. Drake,‘ Wilkins clarified, as though the distinction should have been obvious. ‘Martha. She was on Entertainment Daily talking about her new boyfriend, Rex Gilbert.'”