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BOOK REVIEW

The sad, slow burn of fighting a losing battle

By Lucy Barber
Globe Correspondent / June 8, 2010

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There are books that instantly intoxicate you. “Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe’’ is not one of those. Its effects are slower, the sort of euphoria that builds, something you are unaware of until it has completely taken you over.

The novel is the story of Birdie Baker, a Southern girl who we meet nine years into her Sisyphean journey as a struggling actress in Los Angeles. The plot of the book reads a little like the lyrics to a Bon Jovi ballad: A good girl dreams of bigger things than church Sundays and good ole boys and is swept into the dangerous riptide of the city lights. It is a plot as tired as Birdie herself, fighting a losing battle to stay afloat.

But what keeps you reading is Jenny Hollowell’s gift for clever and poetic prose. Her language is as dark and smooth as the amber-colored Scotch that Birdie favors.

Birdie arrives in Tinseltown at age 21 filled with delusions of easy grandeur. She has abandoned her hometown of Powhatan, Va., her well-meaning parents, and her devoted husband.

By the time the reader finds her nearly a decade later, Birdie has become a recluse in a rented condo, drinking instead of eating, working as an extra and auditioning for tampon commercials, calling home only to hang the phone back up without a word.

She is treading water and desperately trying to fight the passage of time with face creams and by worshiping at the altar of gym memberships and starvation.

“Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe’’ can feel static at times and by the end, little has happened. However, Hollowell’s stunning language is enough to keep you wanting more, to keep you pushing forward, though we know there is no hope for Birdie.

“From here to there is the distance between what she is and what she could be. She has seen herself from that distance. She has looked down from those very hills and has seen how very small she is, so small that she is indistinguishable from the rest of this mess, too small to see and should she disappear, to small to miss.’’

Birdie is a dying sun and revolving around her are a cast of inconsequential extras, as important to the story as “Guy with Latte #1’’ in a galaxy of credits. Along the way she has a fling with a bleary-eyed actor who is too naive to realize his insignificance in her orbit. The novel is Birdie’s. But the reader begins to suspect that, like the last days of a star, Birdie’s real flame is already largely extinguished and that the faded light we can still make out was emitted long ago, only just reaching us now.

“Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe’’ is just that. It’s easy to get dizzy on the language, to let it move you along through an otherwise monotonous plot. You don’t mean to get caught up but you do. You mean to stop, to cut yourself off because you know where this is headed.

But Hollowell’s words make even ordinary traffic light bulbs glow like nebulas. There is nothing fresh about the obituary of this star, but it is brilliant and sad nonetheless.

Lucy Barber can be reached at lbarber@globe.com.

EVERYTHING LOVELY, EFFORTLESS, SAFE

By Jenny Hollowell

Holt, 256 pp., paperback, $14