Jess Dunne is third-generation Hollywood, but her star on the boulevard has yet to materialize. Sure, she’s got a Santa Monica address and a working actress roommate, but with her nowhere barista job in a town that acknowledges zeroes only as a dress size, she’s a dead girl walking.
Enter Jess’s mother—a failed actress who puts the strange in estrangement. She dives headlong into her daughter’s downward spiral, forcing Jess to muster all her spite and self-preservation to snag a career upgrade.
As a personal assistant for a famous (and secretly agoraphobic) film composer, Jess’s workdays are now filled with shopping for luxury goods and cooking in his perfectly designed kitchen. Jess kills at cooking, a talent that only serves her intensifying urge to dig in to Los Angeles’s celebrity buffet.
When her food garners the attention of an actress on the rise, well, she’s all too willing to throw it in with the composer and upgrade again, a decision that will have far-reaching ramifications that could explode all her relationships.
All the while, her mother looms ever closer, forcing Jess to confront the traumatic secrets she’s been running from all her life.
Oh! You Pretty Things is a dizzying ride at the carnival of fame, a fast-paced and sharply funny work that dares to imagine what happens when we go over the top in a town of gilded excess.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A few hours before I quit my job, I’m stuck at the light on Rose and Pacific, watching a string of kids wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the name of their preschool—“Blackberry Atelier”—as they cross the dirty asphalt. Harried teachers urge them onward while supermodel-beautiful moms in Fred Segal sweatpants bring up the rear, tapping urgently on their cell phones.
Another perfect day in Venice, California.
I’m stuck on my bike, even though the only people in Los Angeles who ride bikes to work are fourteen-year-olds and people convicted of multiple DUIs. And me. I’m not a drunk or a kid—or even an eco-warrior—I just have no other way to get around.
When I pull up at the Date Palm ten minutes later, Pete—the baby-faced twenty-three-year-old manager—is outside smoking a cigarette.
“You’re late,” he says, flicking his cigarette toward the sand-filled ring surrounding the public trash can.
“There was a toddler pileup on Pacific,” I say. “It was a bloodbath.”
I give him a nudge with my shoulder as I pass. There’s a mild flirty thing we do, even though I’m six decades older than he is—okay, six years, but that’s a lifetime in L.A.—and if I can get him laughing, he’ll forget that my shift started five minutes ago.
“Seriously, Jess,” he says without cracking a smile. “I need you back there. The new hire’s standing around with his head up his ass. Go tell him what to do.”
I stare at Pete. So much for flirting. Also, what new hire? There’s no room on the schedule for another counterperson. In fact, I’ve been looking to pick up a couple extra shifts, but Pete’s been stonewalling, and I’m increasingly paranoid. “Wait, you hired someone new?” I say. “Are you still going to put me on mornings?”
Pete eyes the still-smoldering cigarette butt. “We can talk about this later, Jess, okay? Just get in there.”
I push through the warped wooden door and into the near-empty dining room. This is so not how I envisioned myself on the cusp of my thirties. Recently divorced, back in L.A., starting over. This isn’t even square one, it’s square negative two.
From behind the counter, Jayne chirps, “Hello, luv,” as I stow my purse.
She sounds chipper, but I know she’s pissed I’m late. She cloaks her bad attitude behind her Manchester accent, wide hazel eyes, and masses of pre-Raphaelite hair.
“Hi,” I say. “Sorry.”
She shrugs. “This is Kenner.”
I shoot a sidelong glance at the new guy: young, sleekly androgynous, and twitchy in a not-entirely-unappealing way. Could be worse. But Kenner? What kind of a name is Kenner?
I give him a facsimile of a smile as I tie my green polyester apron around my waist, which he takes as an invitation to start talking.
“Jayne’s told me all about you,” Kenner says enthusiastically. “I’m so excited you’re going to be training me. Don’t you love working at the beach?”
I can feel a twisted smirk replacing my faux smile, so I grab a pan of warm gluten-free croissants and start shoving them into the display case. Who the fuck eats a gluten-free croissant? People who live in zip codes that start with a 9-0, that’s who.
“A lot of celebrities have houses in this neighborhood, right?” Kenner continues. “Fiona Apple, have you ever seen her? I mean, I wish I lived closer, but I love driving here from the Valley. Once you get over the Sepulveda Pass, there’s a change in the air. I swear the temperature drops ten degrees and the people are just so interesting. I heard Julia Roberts has a place down the street. Does she ever come in? Oh my God, I don’t know what I’d do if she ever came in. I guess I’d—”
“Kenner,” I say, whirling around and wiping my coconut-oil-slicked hands on my apron. “You need a star map from the twenty-first century.”
Kenner looks hurt and toys with a pocket on his Nigel Cabourn jeans, which, hello? If he can afford six-hundred-dollar jeans, what’s he doing at the Date Palm?
Truth? It’s the invocation of Julia Roberts that pushes me over the edge. I mean, I’m a huge fan of abject starfuckery, but can’t he find a timelier object of infatuation? Shouldn’t he be making references to hip, obscure microcelebrities? It feels like he’s reaching into the oldies bin for a star I’ve actually heard of.
“Sorry,” I say, grudgingly. “I know I’ve only been here three minutes, but I’m already having a day.”
“No problem,” Kenner says, but his body language says otherwise.
As Kenner sulks, I help a pseudo-Goth kid hidden beneath a scrim of dyed-black hair, who whispers his order for a decaf coconut-milk chai latte.
“How much is that?” he mumbles, not making eye contact.
I consider charging him an extra dollar because he made me strain to hear the word “coconut,” but I’ve already hit my limit on groundless irritation for the day.
“Seven seventy-five,” I say, and his flat-ironed hair waves in a single sheet as he nods his assent.
I fill a white paper cup halfway from the steaming glass carafe of black chai tea waiting on the warmer, then dump a few inches of organic coconut milk into a steel pitcher and foam it up on the espresso machine. When I push the cup across the counter, he peers at me with one kohl-rimmed eye.
“Did you steam the milk with the same wand you use for dairy?” he says.
“Of course not. We only use that one for almond and soy. And the occasional coconut, obviously.” I wave my hand toward the other side of the behemoth machine. “Dairy happens over there.”
He flips a quarter into my empty tip jar, and shuffles away.
“You’re definitely going to hell,” Jayne says, laughing.
“I don’t get it,” Kenner says.
“That steamer hasn’t worked since I’ve been here,” Jayne says.
I bring Kenner to the kitchen to watch the line cook whip up a batch of famous secret-recipe Date Palm granola. If you ask me, it’s nothing to get excited about. I make a granola of my own with dried cherries and pumpkin seeds that blows it out of the water. The Date Palm version is eight dollars a bowl and has more saturated fat than a rib eye, but the tourists line up to buy souvenir bags of it for twenty-two bucks a pop.
When we return to the front, Jayne has emptied her tip jar onto the freshly wiped counter, stacking the bills in neat rows. I’m no fashion expert, but that’s when I notice that Kenner’s wearing a pair of leather sneakers that cost more than my car. Oh, wait, make that more than my repossessed car.
“Those are some impressive kicks,” I say. “Are they Prada?”
“Rick Owens,” he says in a weird monotone. “They were a gift from my last boss.”
“Wow, generous boss.”
“Hazard pay,” Kenner says.
“What’d you do?”
“I was his personal assistant.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s that like?”
“Hazard pay,” he repeats, then turns to wipe down the already clean counter.
“How’d you do?” I ask Jayne, nodding toward the stack of bills.
“Not bad.” She folds the cash into two unequal piles. “We were slammed until three.”
I look around at the empty restaurant. “Must be nice.”
The day shift at the Date Palm is the cash cow, but Jayne gets first pick of the schedule, so I’m always the weekday closer. The differences are staggering. She stacks twenties while I’m happy to get an occasional five. Which sucks, because I’m trying to scrape up some savings. I don’t even know why at this point—maybe I just need one stable element in my otherwise unbalanced life. It’s clear that my ship of youthful exuberance has left the dock. Don’t get me wrong—in almost any other town I’d be considered viable. Here? They’re about to set me adrift on an ice floe.
Jayne tucks the smaller wad of cash into the pocket of Kenner’s fancy jeans. “Here, luv,” she says. “You killed it today.”
Kenner throws his arms around her. “Oh my God, thank you so much. You’re the best.”
Hold up. I’m barely covering rent and Jayne’s tipping the new guy out on his first day? And also, what? Did Kenner work the day shift before I got here?
“Wait a second,” I say. “Did you work lunch today?”
Kenner looks stricken. “I, um . . . Yes?”
“Since Pete, uh, hired me for then?”
Holy shit. Kenner is getting the day shifts? I shoot a side-eye in Jayne’s direction and she shrugs innocently, but I know she’s got details.
Pete picks that moment to roll in. He sees Jayne and me gnarled in a counter knot, and says, “Two horses walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Why the long faces?’”
He’s big on bad jokes, which might have something to do with the fact that he’s twenty-three and perpetually stoned.
“Dude,” I say, “are you giving Kenner day shifts?”
“Well, nothing’s decided for sure,” he says, and his eyes flick toward the door.
“Really, Pete?” I can’t keep the hurt from my voice, and I take a deep breath before continuing. “We talked about giving me days. Or putting me in the kitchen. You know that’s where I’ll kick ass.”
“We don’t need another cook, Jess.” Pete rubs his temples and sighs. “I’m not trying to be a dick, but, c’mon. Kenner fits the demographic around here. You’re . . . well, you know how it is.”
Yeah, I know how it is. I was born and raised here. Beauty talks, average walks. I’m a solid size eight—sometimes a ten—with plain brown eyes and plain brown hair that I’ve been dyeing auburn since my late teens, with the exception of that one unfortunate flirtation with platinum blond, which ended in a pixie cut and tears.
Pete looks at me imploringly. “Jess, you’re awesome, but you are kind of . . . aging out of the barista scene.”
I fucking knew it.
“Please don’t make this into a thing.” He sounds earnest and heartfelt, which is unfortunate, because nice is my kryptonite. “I can’t give you those shifts. I’m sorry, I just can’t.”
“Yeah, okay,” I say. “I get it.”
Pete gives me a look of gentle empathy, so I sidle into the bathroom before I well up or, worse, bust out the full ugly cry. Once I start the ugly cry, it’s pointless trying to hold it back.
When I get back to the dining room, Pete’s on the landline, which only happens when someone places a to-go order or checks our hours. He’s smiling, and when he catches my eye I brace myself for another assault of kindness. Then he says the words that are so much worse than You’re fired or even I hope we can still be friends.
“It’s your mother,” he says, proffering the receiver in my general direction.
A fizzle of adrenaline blooms at the back of my head, snaking up my scalp and down into my arms.
“Seriously?” I mouth, and Pete nods and looks at me quizzically, turning one palm up, and shrugging his shoulder, like What’s the problem?
I swear to God, my mother has a sixth sense about when I’m feeling vulnerable. It’s no coincidence that she’s calling right now, this minute, as opposed to twenty minutes ago when I was just garden-variety irritated. It’s like she can smell my fear pheromones all the way in Reno.
I give Pete the “shut it down” gesture, flapping my hand in a sawing motion across my throat.
“Christ, Jess.” He cups his hand over the receiver. “C’mon, it’s your mom.”
“Not here,” I whisper.
“She’s right here,” Pete says, and he tosses the receiver onto the counter between us, like a rapper dropping the mic.
I must look stricken because his face morphs from mild managerial disapproval—no personal calls at work—into genuine concern. “What the fuck?” he mouths, eyebrows raised. “Are you okay?” He’s probably wondering why an old lady like me doesn’t want to talk to an older lady like my mother. Isn’t that what old ladies do all day, talk on the phone and watch soap operas?
I wave him off with an attempt at a smile. It’s ridiculous for me to not be fine. I can’t be not fine. I’m totally fine. The receiver sits there for what feels like a long time. I wait for it to explode, or start leaking green slime, or turn into a snake and slither off the counter.
Eventually I pick it up. What else am I going to do? “Hello?”
“Well, there you are, cupcake,” my mother says, sparkly and brittle as a drugstore Christmas ornament. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
My mother never calls me by name. It’s all sweet pea and cupcake and lamb chop—a whole arsenal of diminutive food names that she’s used in rotation for as long as I can remember.
I duck my head into the receiver like I’m trying to use it as camouflage. “Hi, Donna,” I say. “What do you want?”
“I’m just calling to check up on you, sugar pop. How’s it going down there in Tinseltown?”
I snort a half laugh. “Seriously, Mom, how did you even get this number?”
“You gave it to me, honey pie.”
That’s a total lie, but there’s no point in going there. “Whatever. What do you need?” I guarantee that she is not calling me at the Date Palm at 5:00 P.M. on a Tuesday to check up on me.
“Well, I’m having a bit of a crisis, and I could use a tiny bit of help.”
“I figured,” I say. “How much?”
“Oh, sparkle, no. This is important.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Donna.”
“You’re so cynical,” she says, and I can tell she’s irked; no big surprise. Donna does not like to be called on her shit. “Maybe it’s something really important, sugarplum.”
“So let’s hear it.”
“Well, you remember my friend Emily, don’t you?” She pauses for my assent, which I don’t offer, because I have no idea who she’s talking about. “She just had a big health scare and she hasn’t been herself at all, poor thing. I mean, she can’t work, she can’t drive herself to doctor appointments, nothing. I’ve basically been taking care of her twenty-four hours a day for the past four months.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I say.
I can feel Pete and Kenner listening without even looking in their direction, and the hair on the back of my neck is waving like cilia. I’m sure I sound like the worst daughter in the world, but I’ve spoken to Donna maybe three times in the past five years, and every single time it’s been about money. “Let me guess. In taking care of your friend in her time of need, you’ve fallen a bit behind on your own obligations and you were thinking that maybe I could dip into the imaginary money from Gloria.”
The money from Gloria is such a fucking thing. Gloria was my mother’s mother—my grandmother, though I was never allowed to use that word. The gospel according to my mother is that Gloria beat the shit out of her when she was a little girl, but my memories of Gloria are of a more benign kind of crazy, like having me erase her crossword puzzles so she could do them a second time.
Gloria mostly raised me, which was a benefit for all of us. Donna was a product of the ’70s, and there’s a reason they called that era the “me generation.” She was hypnotically glamorous and predictably unstable, and sometimes it was just better for her to go off and do her own thing when the mood struck.
Gloria bought me breakfast cereal and shiny plastic headbands; Donna occasionally showed up with a bedraggled stuffed animal one of her dates had won at a carnival somewhere. Gloria watched from the window every morning as I waited at the curb for the bus, waving vigorously until we turned the corner and she disappeared from sight; Donna, on one of the only occasions when she drove me to school, made me take off my underwear in the car because she said it gave me a visible panty line. I got sent home from school after I forgot and did a backflip dismount off the jungle gym on the playground.
Gloria attended a couple PTA meetings every year; Donna was a school-year no-show, although once she picked me up from school on a spring afternoon wearing a bikini, which caused a gossipy clusterfuck with the other mothers that haunted me through middle school.
Gloria made sure I had dinner with at least one vegetable on the table. Donna took me along on dates to dive bars, where my entire meal consisted of a highball glass full of maraschino cherries.
When Gloria died, I was the beneficiary of her insurance policy, which my mother will never, ever let me forget. She’s asked for that money a hundred times in the past decade, for a down payment on a condo, to invest in “biotech,” to buy an Arthur Murray franchise. After expenses and taxes, I walked away with fourteen grand. I’ve told her a dozen times that it’s gone, but she refuses to believe me.
I turn away from Pete and Kenner’s curiosity, tucking the phone between my ear and shoulder, and tell Donna yet again that there’s no money left from my windfall inheritance.
“Don’t be silly,” she says. “It’s not imaginary. You were her beneficiary and—”
“So it is about money. I knew it.”
“I’m not calling about money,” she says. “Well, not entirely.”
Jesus Christ. Donna is the queen of oblique conversation. But short of hanging up the phone, there’s really no way to rush her to a conclusion.
“Go on,” I say.
“It’s just . . .” Her voice falters for a second before she continues, and it’s so perfectly timed that I want to applaud her performance. “The doctors aren’t sure what’s going to happen to Emily and she’s not talking to her son and she’s miserable about it.”
“Sounds rough,” I say flatly. “So what do you need from me?”
“I can tell this isn’t a good time, honey pie. I want to talk to you, maybe come see you in person, you know.”
I don’t know, actually. Donna hasn’t shown any interest in seeing me for about fifteen years, and our relationship works best with five hundred miles between us. “What do you mean, come see me?”
“I’ve got enough to come for a visit.” Her voice turns conspiratorial, like she’s letting me in on a delicious secret. “But it might leave me a little short somewhere else.”
“So you want to come for a bonding visit, but you want me to fund it?”
“It’s okay, peanut,” she says. “I’m sure I can pick up some freelance work in L.A.”
Donna teaches acting to children at Lights, Camera, Action! in Reno. It’s a good living. All those cocktail waitresses line up to spend their hard-earned dollars to have my mother—a genuine child star!—teach their kids how to smile on cue and hork up a convincing sob.
“Teaching acting in L.A. is a whole different thing,” I tell her. “You know that. Plus, let’s not pretend you’d have anything left over after you paid for a hotel.”
“Your roommate told me your door is always open. Megan’s such a nice girl. And so pretty. You can tell she takes care of herself.”
Okay, first of all? Donna’s never met Megan, my best friend and roommate. Megan politely accepted Donna’s friend request on Facebook, and now my mother acts like Megan’s the daughter she always wanted and never had.
“Listen, Mom,” I say, skittering my eyes around the near-empty dining room. “We’re getting slammed in here. It’s the dinner rush. I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”
“Oh, sweet pea, just think about it.”
“Mom, there’s nothing to think about. I don’t have the money.”
“We’ll think of something. You’re my peanut-butter princess.”
I hang up without saying good-bye. It’s funny how three words can catapult me straight back into childhood. “Peanut-butter princess” is what Donna called me when I was four or five, before the whole you’re-going-to-be-a-star thing started, in that brief window when I still loved her fiercely and with abandon.
I’m sitting on the gum-speckled curb, finishing my cigarette, when Kenner sidles up. He hovers awkwardly for a moment, then lowers himself into a praying mantis–like crouch.
“Pete’s asking if you’re coming back in,” he says. “Jayne bailed five minutes ago and I’m all alone.”
“Yeah,” I say, blowing a scrim of smoke between us. “As fast as my stubby little legs can carry me.”
Kenner looks at me blankly.
“It’s a joke,” I say.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” he says. “You’re totally hot.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“You know,” Kenner says, tentatively. “If I did something to piss you off, I want to make it right.”
Kryptonite, I’m telling you. I’m such an asshole. “It’s not you. I’m having a thing with my mom, and I’m bringing it along with me like a backpack.”
“I heard . . .” He pauses. “She teaches acting in Reno?”
How the fuck does Kenner know that?
“Yeah, to talentless child actors who are never going to get one single job, like, ever.” And by some horrifying trick of fate or low self-esteem I start confiding in Kenner, of all people. “When my mother was seven, she got a part on a nighttime drama for a season. She replaced another kid who got ugly over summer hiatus. It shaped the rest of her life. And mine, I might add.”
Kenner smiles, but his expression is weird and sad, not amused. “At least you have a mom to fight with.”
“Well, be careful what you wish for. The grass is always greener on the other side of Sunset Boulevard.”
Kenner wrinkles his nose. “Is that how the saying goes?”
“It is in my world. When I was ten, I bobbled an audition and my mother was so pissed that she left me at a bus stop in Burbank.”
“With three dollars in my pocket and only a vague idea of how to get home.” I inhale a lungful of smoke. “Though in her defense, I was well versed in the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus system.”
Actually, we only went to Burbank when she lost a job or broke up with a boyfriend. She’d get a wild hair to make me over in her image, which was a stone impossibility. I inherited exactly none of her acting ability and I’ve always been shy around new people. Donna didn’t care. She’d swoop me up from Gloria’s house or pull me out of class with a dog-eared copy of Backstage magazine and a determined gleam in her eye. We’d chug up over the 405 and down the 101 in her shitty, clanking Toyota and she’d coach me like a pageant mom on Toddlers & Tiaras. It never helped.
I choked every time the red light started blinking and the casting agents—an endless parade of too-thin women wearing pencil skirts and matte red lipstick—cued my first line. I’d stammer and sweat until they told me they’d heard enough.
“We’ll be in touch,” they said, and never were.
Donna was usually pretty pragmatic about it. She’d cross the ad off her list and hype me up about the next audition, or else she’d drop me at Gloria’s, and months would go by before she’d show up and we’d do it all over again.
On that day in Burbank, I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was the other mothers and daughters in the holding area, blond and well dressed and patrician. We sat on the folding metal chairs in the waiting room and I watched my mother’s eyes flick from one blonde to the next, finally landing on my mouse-brown head with disappointment that shaded into disgust.
When I got into the room, they didn’t even let me read. A woman with a shiny black bob wanted to know what kind of products I used on my hair.
I giggled nervously and said I couldn’t remember.
She asked me to smile “really, really big, so I can see those toofers,” and I could feel the streaky heat of embarrassment prickle up my chest and into my face.
She flipped my picture facedown onto a stack of paper. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she said, then flicked her glance toward my mother. “We’ll be in touch.”
Mom thanked her for seeing me in a voice that sounded like cherry syrup, overly colorful and cloyingly sweet.
She waited until we got to the parking lot before she let me have it.
“I don’t know why I even bother with you.” She dug in her fake Chanel handbag for a crumpled pack of Benson & Hedges. “You’re a fucking ventriloquist’s doll, and I am sick and tired of shoving my hand up your ass to make you talk.”
“I didn’t even get to read,” I said.
“Because you looked like shit,” she said, exhaling a plume of smoke in my direction, and careening out the driveway onto Verdugo. “You’re twenty pounds fatter and not half as cute as the other girls, and you have to sell it with your personality or you’re fucked.”
I felt the familiar swell of tears rising in my throat and I turned to look out the window so she wouldn’t see.
“Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?” she said.
I took a breath. “I don’t want to do any more auditions.”
She swerved the car to the curb, jamming the gearshift into park. “Get out, you little ingrate,” she said, her voice low and even.
I crossed my arms over my chest and tucked my chin. She leaned across me and shoved the passenger door open with a flourish.
“Seriously, get the fuck out,” she said. “If you’re too good to go on an audition then you’re too good to ride home with me.”
“I don’t even know where we are.”
“When I was your age, I was driving a car,” she said, and I remember thinking, even then, Jesus, she’s so full of shit.
“You’ll figure it out,” she said.
I picked up my book bag and stepped onto the curb. She threw the car into gear and drove off with the door still gaping like a startled mouth.
And it’s not like she was watching from around the corner, trying to teach me a lesson. She was gone. My best guess is that she ended up at the dive bar on Olive where old actors sing karaoke and get shit-faced, but I couldn’t have told you that back then.
When a skinny lady with a mustache sat down beside me, I acted as though I knew what I was doing, studying the numbers on the metal bus sign like I was picking the optimal route.
Eventually, a bus pulled to the curb and I didn’t even stammer when I asked the driver how I could get to Fourteenth and Idaho in Santa Monica. He rattled off a couple changes and tore two tissue-thin transfers from a pad by the steering wheel and pressed them into my hand.
“I got home eventually,” I tell Kenner, then offer him the pack of American Spirits.
“Thanks, no.” He looks faintly embarrassed. “I don’t smoke.”
“You’re too young,” I say. “You haven’t developed lungs yet.”
He gives that the feeble half smile it deserves. “Well, Pete asked me to check on you. I can tell him whatever you want.”
“Maybe you can tell him I quit,” I hear myself say.
“I don’t know. It’s time for me to move on anyway.”
Kenner bounces the heel of his ridiculously expensive shoe against the ground like a bashful little kid on the playground. “Move on to what?”
“No clue,” I say. “My skill set is limited.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
“I’m divorced, twenty-nine, with a head full of celebrity trivia. I’m thinking sign twirler. I can get a little sun, do some cardio.”
Kenner laughs. “You’re a pop-culture junkie? I’m obsessed. What blogs do you read?”
“Deadline,” I say. “Radar, Page Six, TMZ.”
“Are you kidding? I live for that stuff, even though three-quarters of it is bullshit.”
He sounds like he’s speaking from experience, so I give him a look.
“My job before this,” he explains. “It was for a celebrity, oddly enough.”
“I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
“Uh-huh,” I say, because that’s how these conversations always have to start, all Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly. “Give me a hint.”
Kenner sighs, but his eyes are shining with the desire to let it rip. “Well, he’s an Oscar-winning film composer.”
“Yeah, no clue,” I say. “Um, Trent Reznor? Danny Elfman?”
“Not even close. This guy isn’t a rock star who dabbled, he’s the real deal.”
“Yeah?” I say. “Is he still looking for someone to replace you?”
“Huh,” Kenner says, and I can see the wheels turning as he considers the possibilities. “You know, you might be a good fit for him.”
“How was the money?”
“Twenty-five an hour, plus, you know—” Kenner waggles a shoe in my direction. “Extras.”
“Those shoes were an extra? And you left there to come here? For fuck’s sake, why?”
“You’re on call 24/7,” he says. “My boyfriend isn’t a fan of the two A.M. phone calls.”
“Well, lucky me—I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“It definitely takes a certain personality.”
“Abrasive and moody?” I ask. “Sign me up.”
“Neurotic and smart,” he says, then blushes a little bit at his own honesty. “I’ll call and see if he’ll interview you.”
“Really? Now?” I say. Inside I’m dancing the Charleston.
“It’s the least I can do since I’m snaking your day shifts. It may take a minute. He’s not good at answering his phone.”
“Then I will rock at this job,” I say. “Answering phones is one of my special gifts.”
The truth is, I don’t have any special gifts. But I’m not an idiot.
In hindsight, maybe I should’ve waited to hear about Kenner’s mysterious composer before I gave Pete notice. I suck at the long game—I’m more of an instant-gratification kind of girl—but I couldn’t help myself.
The truth is I played it way cooler with Kenner than I felt. I wasn’t totally honest about my gossip-blog consumption either. I’m not proud of the fact that I’m beyond obsessed, but the blogs are only the tip of the iceberg. I also watch E! News and Access Hollywood, devour E! True Hollywood specials, Extra, The Insider, you name it. I even pick the longest lines at the grocery store so I can page through Star magazine and OK! and In Touch weekly, although I balk at purchasing them, because that would cross a line.
With the shiny lure of celebrity dangling in front of me, I leaped into the fucking abyss.
“It’s time for me to pursue other options,” I said to Pete when I went back in. “I can give you as much time as you need. Two weeks? Three?”
Pete frowned. “I can’t, Jess. The policy is to immediately cut anyone who gives notice.”
“There was a thing with a line cook a few years ago where he sabotaged the dry goods with bug larvae.”
“Gross,” I said. “I would never.”
“God, I know that, Jess. But it was, like, rule number one in my management training.”
“So, I’m just cut, then?”
“I can pay you out a few vacation days,” he said. “But yeah, basically. You know it’s not personal, right?”
I craned my head around the empty office. “Kind of feels like it, since we’re the only two people in here.” The truth is, I wasn’t even thinking about the money, not thinking about rent or even Donna’s potential visit. As I cleared out my locker and tossed my polyester apron into the dirty-linen bin, all I was thinking about was Kenner’s mystery celebrity.
Sometimes you have to close one door before another opens.
The thing is, I’m not very good at unemployment. At this point, I’ve been in bed for three days, surfing Facebook and Twitter and watching reruns of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and House Hunters International, in addition to my steady gossip-blog diet. Once in a while, under the cover of darkness, I skulk across the street to get frozen yogurt, dressed in a pair of stretched-out gray sweatpants and the Sex Pistols T-shirt I’ve been sleeping in. And I haven’t heard a peep out of Kenner. I have his number, but it feels too desperate to call.
Pretty much the only contact I have with the outside world is the guy behind the frozen-yogurt counter. He never says a word, just nods and grunts when I order, then bags my quarts of chocolate malt and old-fashioned vanilla—and, occasionally, a quart of tropical fruit that tastes like ipecac syrup, because I tell myself it has more Vitamin C. I’m invisible to him, which is fine with me. The last thing I want is to be seen.
Megan’s been in San Diego for a week, shooting episodes of a new network show featuring impossibly hot lady cops who keep finding themselves in investigations involving lingerie or swimsuits. If she were here, she’d bring a salad bowl full of popcorn into my bed and tell me everything is going to be all right with the sort of sincerity only a working actress can muster.
A working actress is an anomaly in L.A. Everyone is some kind of model-actress-whatever, but when you drill down, waitress-barista–sex worker turns out to be more accurate. Not Megan. She’s gorgeous, but not in a starlet way. She’s a brunette, first of all, and she’s curvy like a pinup model, not wafer-thin with pneumatic tits and lips, which is de rigueur in L.A. She’s kind of a tomboy Dita Von Teese, if that oxymoron makes any sense. Her looks can skew toward either blueblood or girl-next-door, and once she has a few drinks in her, she becomes a bawdy, size-2 truck driver—yeah, that’s curvy in Los Angeles—so of course I fell in love with her the moment I met her.
And after I read my mother’s latest texts, I need her. But I can’t call when she’s on an audition. She’ll turn off her phone while she’s actually in the room, but I don’t want to break her concentration if she’s still sitting in some endless holding pen full of the pneumatically-titted.
Donna’s texts are a cavalcade of bad news.
The first one says, SweetP? RU there?
The second one says, Emily’s not in good shape. I’m agonized. Really must see you.
And by “must see you,” she means must see my money. Also, for what it’s worth, I’m patently aware that there is no Emily. There’s never an Emily. You know how little kids create imaginary playmates and then blame broken cookie jars and dead goldfish on them? Well, Donna never outgrew that phase. She’s a master at diverting uncomfortable truths or unpopular opinions to the mouths of her nonexistent friends. (“I was talking to my friend Cecelia, and she noticed you’re looking a little chubby, hon,” or, “I would love to come to your spelling bee, but I have to go to court with my friend Rachel that day.”) It’s one of the many forms of Kabuki theater I grew up with—smooth, bland masks that kept us from having to have real conversations. At this point, it’s just par for the course.
The third text says, I’m planning the L.A. trip now. Hope the old clunker can make it over the Grapevine. xoxo
I start sweating damp, sticky circles under my arms. Is she really coming? Where’s she going to stay? Not here. She’s probably lying about that, too. She’s probably just threatening to visit so I’ll send her money. Gaaah.
I scrape out the dregs of a quart of strawberry frozen yogurt like maybe there’s a golden ticket at the bottom, then set the empty on my cluttered nightstand. If Megan doesn’t come home soon, I’m going to weigh three hundred pounds. Maybe I can join the circus. Better than living with Donna.
My only other option is calling Kenner. He scrawled his number on a Date Palm napkin after my unfortunate instant resignation with Pete.
“Call me in a couple of days,” he’d said while I’d fought back tears and tugged at my bike lock. “I’ll talk to my old boss.”
“Prada guy will never hire me.”
He looked at his shoes and sighed. “They’re Rick Owens. And seriously, you’d be perfect.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because you have the skin of a rhinoceros and the soul of a rose.”
I stared in astonishment.
“Stella Adler,” he explained.
Believe me, I knew the provenance of the quote. Donna said it every time I came in crying from the playground. “You’re better than those assholes,” she’d say of whichever girl had hurt my feelings with some imperceptible slight. “You have the skin of a rhinoceros and the soul of a rose.” For the longest time, I thought she’d made it up. Turned out it’s a pretentious trope from the Actors Studio. I wasn’t really surprised. Also? I have the least rhinoceros-y skin on the planet. I guess she meant it in an aspirational way.
Kenner had slipped the napkin into my hand with an agonizing pity smile. “Seriously. Call me. He won an Oscar!”
An Oscar is major, even if you’re not into that kind of thing. Although, of course, everyone’s into exactly that kind of thing. Which is why I’m in my room eyeing the napkin with Kenner’s number when I hear a key scrape in the door.
A spark of hope ignites in my chest. Megan’s home. I hear her swearing under her breath and jiggling our sticky lock.
If you’re feeling generous, you could call our apartment bohemian. It’s on the fourth floor of an old five-story Masonic lodge in Baja Santa Monica. Santa Monica is divided into two areas. First there’s the flats, or what we jokingly call Norte, where the real-estate price tags start in the multimillions and Montana Avenue teems with Stokke and Bugaboo strollers pushed by underpaid Filipina nannies while the slim-again mothers sift through lingerie at Only Hearts or grab a Pilates mat class at YogaWorks.
Then there’s where we live, Baja Santa Monica, on the cusp of Venice. Sure, we’ve got an Urth Caffe and some celebrities tucked into the walk-streets by the beach, but Baja Santa Monica is low-key, and our rent-controlled apartment would make a Montana Avenue mommy wrinkle her sculpted nose in disdain. There are drunk sorority girls puking and shrieking in the alley outside O’Brien’s Pub every Friday and Saturday night, and a contingent of moderately aggressive homeless people form a gauntlet between our building and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf a block down.
But there are definite pluses, such as rent control, which means we pay only $612 each for our minuscule two-bedroom/one-bath apartment, a price seriously unheard-of in this or any other livable part of the city. And we’re three blocks off the beach, so when the rest of the city is sweltering during our long, subtropical summers, we’ve got a morning marine layer that lets the beach kittens add a layer of Planet Blue cashmere over their James Perse sundresses.
Megan scored the apartment from the makeup artist on her last movie, who took a job doing fetish porn in Japan. Megan paid her five grand in cash to walk away. Technically the lease is still in her name, and we send our checks to a PO box every month, plus an extra two hundred bucks cash, which Megan always pays. It’s the vig. So far, we haven’t gotten an eviction notice, but I squint at the front door every time I come home. Megan says we have nothing to worry about, but do we really think that a fetish porn star would hesitate to screw us?
Megan chooses to live modestly, in a cheap apartment with a cheaper roommate. She could afford better—hell, she could treat herself like a celebrity instead of an actress and blow through her savings in a year. But she would never. That’s her greatest fear: waking up one day with no work, no money, and no prospects.
My greatest fear is that she’ll wake up one day and realize that she can do better than a shitty apartment in a shitty neighborhood with a shitty roommate. Or at the very least, that she can live in a building with a working elevator.
“Are you here, Boof?” Megan drops what sounds like a steamer trunk on the wood floor in the living room.
“In my room,” I call out, which should give you some idea of the acoustics in our rent-controlled sliver of the L.A. dream.
A moment later, she flops beside me on the unmade bed and kicks her slip-on Keds onto the floor. “What is going on in here? It smells like ass, and you’re sitting in the dark.”
“That’s not ass,” I tell her. “That’s dried tropical-fruit yogurt.”
“Classy,” she says, yanking on the blinds to let the afternoon summer sun flood in.
My room doesn’t look that bad. Well, sure, there’s the mound of yogurt containers and a couple piles of dirty laundry, but nothing to expose the horrible facts that I quit my job, my mother is threatening to descend on us like a plague of crazy, and I’m the biggest twenty-nine-year-old loser west of the 405.
“I quit my job,” I say. “And I am the biggest loser west of the 405.” No point in avoiding the obvious.
Megan plucks an American Spirit from the pack on the table. Her hazel eyes are sparkling like it’s the best news she’s heard all week.
“I need fire,” she says.
I toss her the pink My Little Pony disposable Bic that I swiped from Pete at the Date Palm. Maybe I should feel guilty, but honestly, I was doing his ironic hipster ass a favor.
I’m this close to mentioning that if I don’t pay off Donna—which is what I’m convinced all those texts are about—she’ll slither onto our couch and poison our lives. But I can’t. What if Megan offers to front the money? I don’t mind mooching a little, but the whole actress-as-friend thing is tricky. There’s such a fine line between friend and entourage.
“You’re so dramatic,” Megan says. “We’re young, white, and living the Hollywood dream.”
“That’s you, Boof. I’m feeling more fat, jobless, and broke right now, frankly.”
Megan exhales a stream of smoke. “I hated that Date Palm job for you. You need to cook, not cashier.”
“Now I’m not doing either,” I say. Cooking is another one of those jobs where looks don’t matter—in any other city on the planet. But here, even a scullery job at a hip restaurant feels like going on a casting call for a commercial. They want head shots. Seriously, head shots.
“Well, I want to care about your crappy job loss, but it’s a big win for me because I just booked a Gary Scott Thompson pilot.”
I look at her blankly.
“I’m shooting in Maui for six weeks,” she explains. “I want you to come with.”
“As what?” I scoff, as if I’m not already throwing sunscreen into a suitcase.
Megan kicks her bare feet into the air. “Whatever. Are you hearing me? Maui.”
“I don’t know . . .”
“I bet I can get you paid.”
“Gary Scott Thompson,” she says, and unleashes her smile.
I’m not entirely clear who Gary Scott Thompson is, but her enthusiasm is infectious. And this would solve all my problems.
“Gary Scott fucking Thompson!” I say. “I’m in! Is it time for bubbles?”
Megan always keeps a couple bottles of good champagne in the fridge. It’s her philosophy that we should always be able to celebrate good news at a moment’s notice. I tend more toward the notion that we should always be able to drown our sorrows, which kind of illuminates the basic—and major—difference between us.
“Boof, please,” she says. “That’s not even a real question.”
I should explain the Boof thing. We picked it up six years ago, when a drunk guy in an unfortunate mesh shirt sidled up outside the restaurant—the now defunct Guys and Dolls—where Megan and I were waiting for her car from valet. We barely knew each other then. I’d been dating Robbie—my ex-husband—for a few months, and she’d just started dating his business partner, a shady guy who wouldn’t last long in any of our lives. The boys had gone to the SXSW music festival and we were making the best of being left behind. We were both a little tipsy, not so much from the bottle of wine we’d shared but from our mutual delight that we were getting along so well.
“You’re the girl from Jade Wolf!” the guy said, fumbling with his iPhone for the inevitable picture request.
Megan gave him a hundred-watt fan smile. “You must be one of the three people in the US who watched it.”
“Areyoukiddingme?” He threw an arm around her shoulders, then peered at me. “Are you somebody too?”
“This is Jess,” Megan said, slipping gracefully from his sweaty clutch after he’d clicked the picture. “She’s my girlfriend.”
“You mean, like, girlfriend girlfriend? You boof girls?”
Megan grabbed my hand and led me away toward her Jeep, which was idling at the curb. “Thanks for watching Jade Wolf.”
It was a weird L.A. bonding moment, and we’ve called each other Boof ever since.
“There’s only a bottle of Krug in here,” I yell after rummaging through the fridge.
I peer around the corner, where I can just glimpse Megan’s face hanging upside down from the side of my bed.
“Then we better use the good glasses,” she says, blowing one smoke ring through another, like it’s no big deal that we’re cracking a two-hundred-dollar bottle of champagne at three in the afternoon.
The truth is, Megan doesn’t get recognized that often when we’re out in L.A. Despite working steadily, she’s not even C-list famous. She was a theater major at UCLA when she was a teenager and she studied at the Marcel Marceau Mime School in Paris one summer. She said it was all “now you’re in a box,” “now you’re climbing out of a well,” while the teachers told her in French that she had to stop eating cheese or she’d get even fatter than a size 2.
She came home determined to change her major to something practical when she got cast from a student showcase in a gross-out torture horror film. She never looked back. She still talks wistfully about wanting to do theater, but she’s a Hollywood workhorse. She auditions constantly, and when the jobs come in she takes them and when they don’t she taps into savings.
She just shrugged when Jade Wolf only ran in the United States for twenty episodes, which shafted her out of syndication money. She shops at vintage stores and Target, not Fred Segal and Planet Blue, and she still drives the Jeep she paid cash for after her first big payday.
She’s the most well-balanced actress I’ve ever met, which explains why, when she comes in my room the next day and tells me that the pilot is on hold, I’m the only one who freaks out.
“Fuck, seriously?” I can’t keep the creeping note of panic out of my voice. “What happened? Don’t you have a contract? Fuck!”
“Boof, it’s not a big deal.”
“Do you even like Maui?” She has a point. Even though I grew up in L.A., I’m not built for the heat. My pale skin reddens and freckles without ever approaching a tan, and humidity makes my hair look fungal.
“I like that it’s not here,” I say, thinking about Donna’s texts. “Just tell me one thing.”
“Who the fuck is Gary Scott Thompson?”
She laughs, which makes me happy, and I tell myself that this isn’t the end of the world. Who wants to spend six weeks in Hawaii? Not me. Sunburn city.
I finally break down and call Kenner. I mean, maybe the composer’s not someone you’d have heard of unless you’re a studio musician, but surely he’s a big-enough name that I can let my unfortunate denouement at the Date Palm fade like the end credits after a straight-to-cable movie. The anticlimactic result is that I get his voice mail and leave a babbling message that rivals Jon Favreau’s excruciating scene in Swingers when he has an entire relationship arc on the machine of a girl he met in a bar. Like most things, it’s much funnier when it’s happening on the big screen and not in your bedroom.
When I get home from my yogurt run the next day, there’s a missed call from Kenner. I stand there for a long moment, my quart of nonfat salted caramel melting, and curse myself for leaving my phone behind during my four-hundred-yard dash across the street. It’s always the way, right? You light a cigarette and the bus comes. But before I can call him back, my phone beeps with a voice-mail message.
“Jess, hey, it’s Kenner. Uh, from the Date Palm. So I talked to my boss’s manager. Well, you know, my ex-boss.” He laughs, a nervous squawk that sounds like a jungle bird. “He wants to meet you. I . . . It’s a little weird, because he told me to just have you come to the house. His name is Tyler Montaigne and he lives in Santa Monica Canyon. Can you go there tomorrow at ten A.M. sharp?” He gives me the address. “You can’t miss it. There’s a nine-foot hedgerow surrounding it and a Brian Murphy glass arch by the front gate . . . Ooh, which reminds me: Tyler absolutely hates it, so don’t mention it.”
I wait all of eleven seconds before I text him back. Thank you thank you. I owe you. Big. Xoxo.
I arrive for the interview on my beater Trek hybrid bike, huffing and puffing up the hill from the Pacific Coast Highway, with Range Rovers and Humvees zooming past my elbow. I wait in the street for a minute to compose myself, straddling my bike and breathing in the salt air and eucalyptus, then smooth down my cargo pants and the Petit Bateau T-shirt I bought on credit at Planet Blue yesterday. First impressions are important.
And Tyler is definitely making a good first impression on me. The outside of the house is very beachy chic. The paint on the eaves of the unassuming cottage peels in a fetching fashion and climbing roses bloom in hand-painted Italian pots, each one lined with checkerboard-patterned moss in shades of vibrant green. I park my bike in the open carport beside a shiny black Carrera and another sleek-looking car—a vintage Mercedes, I think—sheathed in a green canvas cover.
Tyler answers the door wearing perfectly rumpled Levi’s and unlaced Timberland boots. He’s on the short side, maybe five-foot-nine, but he’s smooth-skinned and lean, long muscles evident under a fitted white thermal that looks soft and perfectly worn in. His sleek blue Weimaraner snuffles a greeting, then reclaims her position on the leather sofa. There’s a full ashtray on top of the art books piled on an oversize zebra-skin ottoman.
The whole vibe is exquisite. And Tyler’s not bad to look at either.
We sit on his deck and talk about the job in an offhand kind of way. He sounds like a perfectly normal guy who just needs a hand during a busy period, and I sound like a perfectly normal girl who just moved back to her hometown after a divorce. Just a shitload of normal all the way around.
He doesn’t mention his Oscar. I don’t mention that I searched online and saw that he won two Grammys, too, and an Emmy for Outstanding Musical Composition for a Series. He’s laid-back and confident and too good to be true.
I’m not surprised when, at the end of the interview, he gazes out over the treetops and looks a little shifty. Here it comes. He wonders if I’d mind dressing like Betty Boop and calling him “Herr Doktor.”
He says, “Uh, Jess?”
“Yeah?” I ask.
“Sometimes, um, when I hire a new person?”
You want to see how they look in a ball gag?
“Yeah?” I say.
He takes a breath. “They’re in a bit of money trouble. So if you need an advance against wages, now’s the time to say so.”
What People are Saying About This
"Oh! You Pretty Things rocks my Amadeus! Funny, ironic, sardonic, sarcastic, clever, heartfelt…there is something so wonderful about a book that’s so upfront and in-your-face, yet manages to subtly deliver an emotional punch that will linger with you long after you’ve turned the final page. Don’t let the glitzy Hollywood facade fool you; this fabulous novel reveals much about the depth of the human soul.” Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of A Sudden Light and The Art of Racing in the Rain
“Shanna Mahin’s prose amuses, seduces, and kicks your ass all at the same time. The story, as fresh and urgent as tomorrow’s best gossip, grabs hold and never lets go. An absolute joyride!” Allison Burnett, screenwriter of Autumn in New York and Feast of Love
“Reading Oh! You Pretty Things is like eating a box of chocolates in bed—but without any calories. Hilarious, poignant, sharply observed, it is at once a caricature of Hollywood and a searingly accurate portrayal of life inside tinseltown. Shanna Mahin has given us a central character who is both hard-assed and lovable, and a supporting cast worthy of its own Oscar. I wanted another thousand pages of this book’s charm, fluidity, and mordant wit.” –Andrew Solomon, New York Times bestselling author of The Noonday Demon and Far from the Tree
Reading Group Guide
Oh! You Pretty Things
Reading Group Guide
1. The relationship between Jess and her mother is a recurring influence throughout the book. Do you think that Jess is right to always assume the worst regarding her mother? Are her actions justified given their history, or do they set their relationship up for continued failure?
2. Jess is a passionate and talented cook, but in Hollywood even lowly restaurant jobs require a head shot. Will she ever find a way to turn her passion into a career?
3. As a personal assistant the line between friend and employee is extremely vague. Is Jess right to take on-the-job criticism so personally? Should celebrities’ relationships with their assistants be treated as business or personal? What constitutes crossing the line?
4. Jess finds solace in taking care of others, be it her employers or her friends. Is this because she knows what it feels like to be left to fend for herself, or is she just not comfortable being the one in spotlight?
5. Jess and Scout admittedly don’t fit the typical “Hollywood mold,” yet they are drawn to those who do. Is their desire to be sprinkled with celebrity fairy dust what ultimately hurts their friendship?
6. Characters like Megan and Kirk seem to be able to navigate the Hollywood scene with level heads. What is it that allows them to stay grounded in a city where the dogs drink coconut water and wear three-thousand-dollar leather collars?
7. Jess seems more upset by her mother’s reaction to Trent Whitford than by the experience itself. Which do you think was more traumatic? Why?
8. Both the author and her main character are Hollywood natives and offer a unique behind-the-scenes perspective on a town that shows only its shiny veneer. Is the Hollywood culture what you thought it would be? Do you think Jess and Hollywood will ever part ways?
9. Given her lack of a father figure, her divorce from Robbie, and her experience with Trent, what is your opinion of Jess’s relationship with men in Oh! You Pretty Things?
10. Jess comes to the realization that JJ is cheating on Megan with Eva at the same time Megan discovers the affair. Would Jess have come clean if Megan had not brought it up first? Should she have?
11. Jess continues to work for Eva after she and JJ have gone public with their relationship. Should Jess have confronted Eva about the affair? What would you have done?
12. Why did Jess’s mother feel the need to lie about her illness? What would have happened had she been up front about her diagnosis?
13. When Jess’s mother ends up in the hospital, Eva shows up to support her. Does Eva really care for Jess? What are your thoughts on Eva after all she and Jess have been through?
14. Jess’s mother’s death is far from a “perfect Hollywood ending,” but Jess sees it as a fitting end to their story. Has Jess received the closure she needs from their relationship?
15. At the end of the book, Jess leaves us by saying she is “done with all that.” Where do you see Jess post–Oh! You Pretty Things? Is she over seeking approval from others and ready to be her own champion? Is there a ravioli food truck and a happy life with Kirk in her future? Or do you think she’ll be drawn back into the world she’s so familiar with?