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A tale of striving and stardom, with a perfect Hollywood ending

We've had stories of the famous, the semi-famous, the infamous. We've had stories of the unknown who are perfectly happy remaining that way.

What we haven't had enough of, perhaps, in recent years, are well-told stories about a certain set of others: those who are obscure, with a sort of desperate, nearly fanatical, wish to be anything but.

In this prime cultural moment, then, we have Jenny Hollowell's debut novel, out this month in paperback and definitely worth picking up as a diverting summer read.

A California resident who makes her living on the fringes of the entertainment industry, in TV advertising, Hollowell presents a closely observed, street-level tale of one woman approaching the dangerous age for life as a bit-player, wannabe big-time actress in Hollywood. That is: nearing 30, but on the cusp of her chief stock in trade, freshness and youth.

The age, in other words, at which a woman will go, without fanfare or fizzle, from "young and beautiful" to "mature and experienced" -- the starlet's death spiral.

Birdie Baker is this woman, the heroine of Hollowell's (terrifically titled) "Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe." It's a shimmeringly written novel. Each chapter feels like a series of slim, pared-down character studies; every set-piece scene has been polished like a jewel. Hollowell's success at publishing short fiction in little lit magazines like Glimmer Train is evident here. Even plot moments we feel we've seen before -- the meeting-cute scene; the big breakup -- are compelling.

The novel's plot -- which is, in a nutshell, will she make it big or won't she? -- places it, in one sense, firmly within an established tradition of Hollywood character studies ("The Last Tycoon," of course, and many more). But Birdie Baker, the veteran of one fabric-softener commercial and tiny uncredited roles as background players in a few loser movies, nevertheless manages to carve out new territory for herself.

She is, first of all, female (a gender sometimes overlooked among protagonists in Hollywood career fiction); she is lovely -- even, arguably, beautiful, and there is much debate in the book about this word and how it compares with "pretty"; and she is the haunted escapee of strict parents and a wrongheaded early marriage to a young minister from her hometown back East in Virginia.

Birdie does not DO much in this book besides go to casting calls, eat lunch with her devoted agent Redmond, and find a new, and much younger, boyfriend, Lewis, who wears suits that are too small and offers Birdie his "body that would have been carved into marble by now if people still did that sort of thing."

It's not what she does, however, that matters. The point is, everybody in Hollywood does these same things every day, every week, unless they are in the tiniest pinpoint of a fraction of a fraction -- those who have Made It, and who therefore don't need to strive anymore (at least not visibly).

It is how Birdie does it that matters. She is astutely aware at every moment, her eyes open as well as her senses, and she records her own foibles and fallibilities as pitilessly as those of the movie-industry types around her.

We get the feeling, too, that if Birdie fails to make it, she will be as unsurprised as anyone. And as unlikely to point fingers.

So, about the ending. Does Birdie make it big, or not? Giving that away would be ruining one of your potential summer pleasures. We wouldn't be so mean. But we will say this: Birdie's fate is not what you'd expect. In that sense, a perfect Hollywood ending.

Charity Vogel is a News feature reporter.

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Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe

By Jenny Hollowell

Holt

221 pages, $14 paper

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