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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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Everything Lovely

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe: A Novel by first-time author Jenny Hollowell will be released by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. on June 8, 2010.   Here is a preview look including a synopsis of the novel, blurbs from other authors and an excerpt from its opening pages.

Synopsis

A young woman caught at the turning point between success and failure hopes fame and fortune will finally let her leave her old life – and her old self – behind.   Birdie Baker has always dreamed of becoming someone else.   At twenty-two, she sets off to do just that.   Walking out on her pastor husband and deeply evangelical parents, she leaves behind her small-town, part-time life and gets on a bus to Los Angeles.

Quotes

“Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe introduces a strong new voice, poised and sharp, beautifully suited to both the satiric task of dismantling Hollywood, and the empathetic one of rendering a young actress’s grinding struggle for stardom.”   – Jennifer Egan

“There’s some Joan Didion here, some Lorrie Moore, some Nathanael West, but really, it’s all Jenny Hollowell, a new name to remember.”   – Christopher Tilghman

“Jenny Hollowell’s writing is gorgeous and edgy, lyrical and in-your-face.”   – Sheri Reynolds

Excerpt

Prologue

Ask Birdie how she got here and she’ll pretend she doesn’t remember.   “Honestly,” she’ll say, “it all blends together.”   She doesn’t want to talk about the past.   It’s only cocktail talk, but still everyone wants a story.   That’s Los Angeles for you.   Everything’s a pitch.   Sell the beginning and give the end a twist.

The truth is rarely filmic.   Lies are better.   Once she’d told a director she was sleeping with, or who, more accurately was sleeping with her:  My whole family is dead.   We were in a car accident together.   My mother, father, and sister were killed and I am the only survivor.   What did he say?   “What an amazing story,” which meant that he was sorry but also that it would make a great movie.

Semantics, anyway.   There was never any car accident but still she has lost them all.

Ask Birdie how she got here and she will smile and laugh and look down into her glass.   Two things she’s good at:  drinking and keeping secrets.   In the melting cubes she sees the past…

At her agent’s insistence her bio contains the basics:  1979, Powhatan, Virginia.   Even that doesn’t matter.   Redmond changed it to 1983.   “Whoever said thirty is the new twenty-two wasn’t trying to get you work.”   Proof positive: no one really wants the truth…

Going West and the Rest, 2001.   In Powhatan, she leaves a letter that says:

To Judah and My Parents,

I don’t know if you will be surprised to find this note.   I am not surprised to be writing it, though I know it will hurt you and I hate to do that.   But you have to know I have no other choice.   I have been a liar and a hypocrite.   I have tried to be a Believer, but I am not.   Every day, I am full of doubt.   I would rather be honest about my feelings in this life than lie to preserve an eternal hope I am unsure of.   Let’s hope God understands my decision.   I’m sorry.

Love, Birdie.

PS – Don’t try to find me.   I’m safe, but I’m going somewhere far away.

The bus ride to Los Angeles takes two days, seventeen hours, and five minutes.   For the first day, she imagines that Judah is following her, that when the bus stops at a rest area he will be standing there stormy-faced, waiting to take her back.   But by the morning of the second day, as serpentine mountain roads begin to flatten and give way to low flat stretches of highway, her escape begins to feel real.   Nothing is familiar – the scenery, her fellow passengers, the gravity and speed of the bus as it rockets westward past towns, sprawling lights, empty desert, road signs.   Her face reflected back at her in the thick safety glass of the bus window appears ghostly and doubled.   She glances back and forth between both sets of eyes and watches the reflections react – her fractured face bobs and shifts across the glass.      

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