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Almost Everything

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe by Jenny Hollowell (Henry Holt and Company; June 2010)

“We got what we needed.”

This novel tells the story of one Birdie Baker, a young woman from a small eastern town and a deeply religious upbringing.   She marries young – a huge mistake – and decides to escape the life that others have planned for her.   So she “(comes) to Los Angeles, running from something.”

Birdie has a fantasy, that in the big western city recovered from the desert she will find everything lovely, effortless, safe.   She dreams of becoming an actress, being discovered, walking on red carpets and having young girls envy her.   But L.A. can be a tough town for those without money and fame.   Years pass as Birdie exists as a stand-in for a famous actress and a sometime body double.

Important men, men with power in the movie trade, find Birdie attractive but even they can see that she’s aging fast.   Now time has passed and “she was thirty, almost everything, almost nothing.”

Similar stories have been told in other novels about Hollywood, and this reader worried that the story was running out of gas before the halfway point.   Birdie seems less than totally interesting and often unlikable, and she spends too much time with older men.   Fortunately, Birdie eventually meets Lewis – a young male actor who believes in the same things that Birdie once did.

First-time author Hollowell comes up with some great lines detailing how Birdie sees Lewis as a younger version of herself; a fellow traveler haunted by his past but filled with hopes and optimism:  “How young he was, afraid of forgetting the tragedies that made him.   He did not yet know that he will never forget, that he will want to forget but will not be able to.”   With the character of Lewis, Hollowell finds a sweet spot.   Birdie will, of course, become romantically involved with Lewis but even she understands that this will end up like a brother and sister relationship.

Birdie is at first confused about life in L.A. and about why she is not getting what she wants and needs.   She goes on to become a woman who literally comes to believe that having a life – at least the life she wants – is impossible.   And yet she knows she has certain powers.   While producers and directors may not chase after her (pretty girls in Hollywood being a nickel a dozen), a lot of average men do want to be with her.   Why?   Well, because Birdie “did not talk about the future or ask them to be in it…  She did not seem to want them so they pursued her to discover the reason.”

The second half of the novel is strong as Hollowell discovers a way to give Birdie most of what she wants out of life, if not all of what she once dreamed.   And the conclusion – the final words – of Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe cannot be improved upon.   “This is how everything should end:  with the forgotten remembered, the wounded healed, and the sinners forgiven.”

This is a nice debut for Jenny Hollowell.   This reviewer hopes that her sophomore effort is built around a more engaging (and intelligent) protagonist, and that she finds a unique story line.   She’s a self-professed fan of Bob Dylan (“He is so good at summing things up…”) and perhaps she will find some inspiration there.

Recommended.

Take Away:   This story is not very original and it is not close to perfect, but there’s enough here to make it an engaging and satisfying read.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Everybody Is A Star

Seeing Stars by Diane Hammond

“The thing about Hollywood is, it’s no different from heroin or gambling or crack cocaine, except in Hollywood the high is adrenaline.   …And, at any given moment there are ten thousand stunned and hopeful actors driving around the LA freeways, and every one of them is believing that the big break is coming just as surely as sunrise.”

Anne Lamott’s recently released novel Imperfect Birds is a nearly perfectly written story of a loving family in crisis.   In Birds, the love emotes with tension as three family members try to minimize the mistakes they inevitably make in their relationship.   Birds is both tiring – in the sense that it requires the reader’s full attention – and uplifting.

Now Diane Hammond arrives with another lovingly told family novel, Seeing Stars.   Stars is the tale of several families of acting children and their stage mothers who are seeking the fame and fortune that only Hollywood can provide.   Is the pot of gold they’re seeking real or just an illusion?   In part, it’s both.

This is primarily the story of one Ruth Rabinowitz who is almost completely sure that her daughter Bethany is destined to be one of the stars in the Hollywood night.   But Hollywood pushes back by telling Ruth that her daughter is, at best, a character actor.   Then there’s Ruth’s husband, Hugh, left behind in Seattle with his 20-year-old dental practice.  

Hugh supports his wife and daughter but honestly feels they are chasing a dream that will never come true – and the cost of maintaining an extra household in L.A. (not to mention the cost of acting lessons) is eating up all of his earnings.   Does Hugh make Ruth and Bethany return home or let them experience failure?   Will his wife and daughter prove him to be wrong?

The Rabinowitz’s story is the main one but there are several associated ones in Stars.   There’s Bethany’s sometime friend Allison Addison.   Allison is beautiful and knows it.   She also knows that her time to secure a big-time leading role is quickly running out.   Her aggressiveness hides her loneliness.

Allison is quasi-adopted by the shrewd and tough talent agent Mimi Rogers.   Mimi is tougher (“…like an old cat in the night”) than 90% of those in the business but even she must eventually meet her match.

There’s Quinn Reilly, another find of Mimi’s, who is a young James Dean.   Like Dean, he simmers with obvious talent but isn’t much with the social skills.   Will directors use him or figure it’s not worth the cost and aggravation?

Finally there’s Laurel Buehl who is talented enough to make commercials but may be lacking the personality to take the next step.   Her mother Angie has had to battle and survive cancer to be at her side.

Hammond puts all this together with charm and style.   This is an easy – and thus surprisingly fast – read because she so well cushions tension with humor.   In a sense, Hammond’s writing is like Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen with blinders on.   That’s OK, sometimes we need a bit of a break from the harsh light of reality.

It all ends stunningly and smoothly – and must be experienced by the reader rather than explained here or elsewhere.   At the end of Seeing Stars, all of our protagonists both win and lose.   They all – each and every one of them – learn to take what they need out of life and to leave the rest.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by Harper Paperbacks.

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