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Jenny Hollowell's 'Lovely' Debut

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.