Jenny Hollowell's 'Lovely' Debut

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe
Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe
By Jenny Hollowell
Paperback, 256 pages
Holt Paperbacks
List price: $14
Read an Excerpt
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hide captionEverything Lovely, Effortless, Safe is Jenny Hollowell's first novel.

Holt Paperbacks
Jenny Hollowell

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe is Jenny Hollowell's first novel.

Holt Paperbacks

The past was a shadow box and she was Gulliver, giant above it ... Everything was so small, too fragile for her to hold without destroying, and so she looked without touching at the tiny roads, the tiny houses, the tiny rooms, the tiny fluttering lives.

That's Birdie Baker, the protagonist of Jenny Hollowell's gorgeous debut novel, reflecting on the death of her family in a Virginia car accident. But it never really happened. Birdie, a mostly unsuccessful actress, has gotten used to lying about her childhood, lying about her age, to the point where she almost seems to believe it all. The epigraph of Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe is from Marilyn Monroe: "It's all make-believe, isn't it?" The past isn't always what you think, especially in certain places. Welcome to Hollywood.

Hollowell's novel follows Birdie as she works as a body double and minor actress, auditioning for bit parts in films and tampon commercials. She's 30, though her friend and agent Redmond makes her tell everyone she's 26. She arrived in Los Angeles eight years ago, after leaving her deeply evangelical parents and church elder husband behind in Virginia.

Birdie is on the verge of either great success or complete breakdown — she gamely goes to auditions, to industry parties, but she's beaten down and barely holding on. It's at one of those parties that she meets Lewis, a 21-year-old aspiring actor and screenwriter and current office temp. They confess to each other, they drink and sleep together, and they may or may not fall in love — Hollowell is sensitive to the complex and contradictory emotions involved in any relationship, and she refuses, thankfully, to give in to pat endings and easy explanations.

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe will inevitably draw comparisons to Joan Didion's masterpiece Play It As It Lays — both novels follow a struggling young actress beset with emotional problems; both have a similar narrative structure, sometimes making use of very short chapters. But Birdie is unique — she's more hopeful and less damaged than Didion's Maria Wyeth. Hollowell's sometimes brutally honest prose does recall Didion in parts, but she's closer to Ann Beattie, whose Chilly Scenes of Winter was, like this book, a beautifully executed, and often funny, debut novel.

Hollowell's sense of humor saves the novel from being totally despairing — in one scene, the hostess of a party reacts to Birdie's (somewhat sheepish) drink order: "Scotch! ... You're such a badass. You're like, Hi. I drink Scotch. No big deal." And unlike Play It As It Lays or Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, there is hope and redemption in Hollowell's novel, and in Birdie and Lewis' relationship, although you might have to look for it. It might all be make-believe, but no great actor — or novelist — just gives it away.

Excerpt: 'Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe'

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe
Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe
By Jenny Hollowell
Paperback, 256 pages
Holt Paperbacks
List price: $14

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.

What she omits besides her real age: her early filmography (though there were no cameras rolling) where she built her acting resume.

The Hallelujah Days, 1979 — 1986. The south side, the dusty bookshelves full of Bibles, the dim rooms, the pleases and thankyous, the do-as-I-says and just-you-waits. The chained dogs barking in the neighbor's yard. Mother lying for too long in her bedroom, day after day, in the dark.

Also: hand-me-downs, a cat named Sofia, a basement full of crickets, a bedroom with purple wallpaper. Her father coming and going on missionary trips to Places Where the Need Is Greater. Birdie's first Bible (it had a green cover and she drew hearts and flowers in the margins). Church five days a week and, on the other two, preaching in the park until it got dark. "Do you know the Truth?" she asks people as they pass. She offers the Truth in the form of a pamphlet with a full-color picture of Paradise printed on its cover.

(This is where Birdie feels compelled to tell the nonexistent interviewer: no, we weren't white trash, no, I wasn't beaten. You're screening the wrong movie. In this one, I watched the sky for signs that the End was coming and was therefore afraid of thunderstorms.)

More about her mother. When she slept, she wore a velvet sleep mask with a pair of open eyes painted on it. This reminded Birdie of God, of how He can see you when He is sleeping, if He even sleeps.

The Birth of Desire, July 25, 1987. Birdie awaits the birth of her sister at her Worldly (Presbyterian, which is the same as not believing anything, according to their pastor) grandmother's house while Mother and Father are at the hospital.

Her aunts (it is hard to believe those creatures were her mother's sisters) recline around the pool like goddesses, listening to a boom box, rubbing oil into their skin, smoking cigarettes, and sipping Tab. They dive into the pool and swim down to touch the bottom, their gold jewelry flashing like fish in the deep blue water. They give Birdie ice cream and take her photograph. They braid her hair and let her wear their sunglasses.

A magnolia tree leans high above them, dropping seedpods into the swimming pool as the breeze shifts. The pods float for a moment and then sink through the water, pulled toward the black drain at the bottom of the pool. No one knows yet that Birdie's sister will not be born alive. If they knew what grief awaited her, the aunts would not talk about Birdie's mother as they do. Bitten by the spirit, one of them says, rubbing oil into her legs. Have you seen their house? another murmurs. Bitten by fleas is more like it. The aunts laugh. Birdie listens, treading water. Her body is cold but her face burns hot with rushing blood. She is thinking that whatever her mother is she must also be. We have a cat, she says suddenly and the aunts fall silent. Seedpods keep falling one by one into the water. That's where the fleas come from, she says. The aunts nod and look at each other and stub out their cigarettes. How did you get so smart? they say, pulling her out of the pool.

Their tan boyfriends arrive, wearing polo shirts, smiling broadly, smelling (she knows now) like Tanqueray. Chip, Tad, Henry. They flirt with her. You're only seven? Tad says. You look ten. The boyfriends fish pennies from their pockets and distribute them. Remember, they say. Don't tell your wish to anyone. Then they pitch the coins into the courtyard fountain.

After the aunts have left on their dates, after her grandmother is home, after dinner in the kitchen with the cook, after her bath, after everyone has gone to bed, Birdie wanders the endless hallways of the unfamiliar house. The still, deep swimming pool, the courtyard full of statues, the bubbling fountain, the heavy crystal ashtrays. The solarium full of gently nodding orchids. The wallpaper in the foyer, painted with scenes of rural life in China — men in pointed straw hats resting under a pagoda, leading a mule cart, fetching water. Room after room heavy with stillness, doors slightly ajar, shoes scattered on the carpets, dresses sprawled on empty beds, the air glinting with particles of face powder.

At the bottom of the courtyard fountain, she spies the coins they threw in to make wishes, even though she knows wishes are prayers to Satan for things too selfish to ask of God. Her penny flashes on the floor of the fountain as hard and shining and wicked as the wish that accompanied it. She remembers, with shame: to be someone else.

Saving Things, 1987 — 1996. The house seems so empty, Mother says. And so she fills it slowly, with empty boxes and old newspapers and broken things. Everything is saved, just in case.

The rooms grow smaller, lined with what might be needed later — broom handles and catalogs and phone books and coat hangers — until there is no room for anyone, not even ghosts. This is all just trash, Birdie says, but Mother shakes her head. Dad sighs and rubs her shoulder. In this darkness he blends right into the wallpaper.

As the rooms grow smaller Birdie grows bigger. Soon it will be easy to believe that she is only a visitor.

Someone Else, 1993. Birdie stands in her bedroom, studying a picture she has torn from a fashion magazine: a girl with her hair in her eyes sprawled across an enormous bed, wearing peach satin underwear trimmed with bits of yellow tulle. A matching corset lies in shadow, discarded on the floor below her. A mirror on the wall above the bed reflects the girl's bare, luminous torso.

Birdie locks the door, consults the photograph again, and stands at her full- length mirror. She pushes her hair forward. Her hair isn't quite long enough but she gets the desired effect. She squints until she looks hungry and dissatisfied. She takes off her shirt, but the bra won't do; it is plain and white, like her. She removes it. She once read somewhere that breasts should look like pastries, good enough to eat. Hers are smallish cupcakes, but still she can see their appeal. They look untouched: soft white peaks.

She flips off the overhead light and focuses her gooseneck desk lamp on the floor in front of her mirror. Then she lies back across the floor, the pile of the rose-colored carpet soft against her back and the warmth of the lamplight on her eyelids and breasts. She looks over into the mirror. You have a secret, she tells herself, adjusting her expression until hanging there suddenly, with her hair in her eyes and the light washing away her features, is someone else, as lovely and remote as the girl in the photograph. The light from the desk lamp carves a line below her cheekbones and hangs shadows like moons beneath her breasts. Her pupils contract, turning small and bright and black. The light becomes a flashbulb, a spotlight, a light with a million eyes hidden behind it. The eyes watch her, waiting for her to do something.

Hi there, she whispers.

Excerpted from Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe by Jenny Hollowell. Copyright 2010 by Jenny Hollowell. Reprinted by arrangement with Holt Paperbacks, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

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