Author: Louise Levene | Publisher: Bloomsbury
It is September 1940 and Evelyn Murdoch, a translator from the Postal Censorship department, is uprooted from her home in wartime Woking and transferred to Hollywood. She is to assist a mysterious British agent in his attempt to outwit the Los Angeles German delegation and boost the British propaganda effort.
The unhappy young widow is supplied with a new Californian wardrobe, a Bel Air bungalow and her own desk in the writers’ block of Miracle Studios.
At first bewildered by the glamorous excesses of this strange new world, she is gradually seduced by the sunlight, orange groves and clever, fast-talking men. But, just as she begins to blossom, her new technicolour happy ending threatens to slip from her grasp.
I think the kindest thing I can say about Happy Little Bluebirds is that it “had problems”. Whoever wrote the blurb must have had a hard time deciding what to say, because I just read it, and I’m still not entirely sure what it was about. Or whom.
First things first, what I did like about this book. Well, I found the whole Hollywood world fascinating, with the sets and starlets and parties. The detail was lovely, and the book had a real sense of place. If it was a little cliché, I found I didn’t really mind. I thought the premise itself was interesting, with the war going on in Europe and the isolationist view still prevailing in America, pre-Pearl Harbour; an ill-equipped English woman dropped into glamorous Hollywood as a spy. It had real promise.
However, its pretty much all down hill from there.
Happy Little Bluebirds just didn’t live up to its own premise. Nothing really happened in the book. Evelyn goes off to Hollywood, is immediately identified as an English spy, does some rather boring translation work, and goes to parties. That should have been what the blurb said… And then, towards the end, there’s a rather bizarre twist when she thinks her unpleasant-sounding dead husband may still be alive. Only, she’s now sleeping with someone else, and dating another person (who may or may not be gay). It sounds like that ought to be heart-rending; and it is, for about five pages, but then it turns out he is dead after all, and everything is right with the world. I’m still confused as to the point of the whole thing…
It was as if the author couldn’t make up her mind what the book was about (is it a spy thriller? A romance? Women’s fiction? A character study? A treatise on societal roles? Historical fiction?) and was afraid for anything to really happen to her characters.
The characters were pretty weak sauce, which is perhaps why she couldn’t find much for them to do. They just didn’t develop in any way. At several points, the protagonist is told she’s ugly, scruffy, and has poor hygiene, by other characters. Does she take a shower? Not as far as I know. Does she smarten herself up, have a makeover, or embrace her less than fabulous looks in true feminist fashion? Again, I have absolutely no idea. She just seems to accept she’s gross and carry on.
I know about as much about the rest of the cast now, as I did when I first picked up Happy Little Bluebirds. I put this down to the fact that they were entirely one-dimensional. The dead husband, for example, seemed to have no redeeming features whatsoever. At one point, we’re told he killed a beloved pet, for no reason other than dislike. I mean… Some context, some growth, some contradictory aspects, might have made the whole thing a completely different book.
What was most striking was the almost complete lack of dialogue. I actually began to wonder if our heroine was a mute, at one point. I mean, social anxiety is one thing, but she can’t seem to find anything to say to people she’s known for years… What a boring individual!
To sum up: the main character was a boring, ugly, smelly part-mute, who was incapable of making any decision or taking any decisive action, and to whom nothing terribly interesting happened; the plot was wishy-washy and the book generally couldn’t make its mind up what it was; there was a stunning lack of dialogue; and the rest of the characters may as well have not been there, because they were just cardboard cut outs of people.
I put Happy Little Bluebirds down feeling disappointed and confused. It’s one of those you wonder how it ever got published. Perhaps no-one else has read it, and that’s how it happened? Unless this is the very last book on your TBR, and you’re truly desperate for some entertainment, give it a miss.