If you enjoy curling up on your sofa on a rainy Sunday afternoon to watch a classic movie from Hollywood’s golden age — especially a movie about Hollywood’s golden age — you’ll equally relish Emma Straub’s debut novel.
Spanning more than half a century, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is the story of a rural Wisconsin girl, Elsa Emerson, who grows up amidst the actors and actresses hired by her father for his popular summer theater playhouse. Elsa first takes the stage as a pre-teen in 1929 and, although it’s just a bit part, her life is forever changed.
“That night, when the audience stood on their feet to clap at the end of the show, Elsa came out onstage with the rest of the actors and knew that she had done it. They were all clapping for her. The sound of the applause was the most beautiful song she had ever heard.”
At 17, with a number of summer-stock starring roles under her belt, a family tragedy spurring her on and knowing that “(e)ven if she wasn’t happy on the inside, the outside could be something else entirely,” she heads to Los Angeles as the new bride of one of the aforementioned actors, both of them yearning to strike it big in Hollywood. Her young, marginally talented husband is signed by a studio. A few years and two babies later, Elsa is discovered by the man who will become her beloved, second husband. Under his direction, she is transformed from a pretty blonde into a sultry brunette. Voila! Elsa, with a remade history thanks to studio publicists, is now the glamourous Laura Lamont.
The novel’s charm lies in its subtlety. Yes, this is a Hollywood story. But Straub, author of the arresting story collection Other People We Married published earlier this year, treats the relevant storylines — hidden homosexuality among leading men, substance abuse, jealousy and infighting — with the same gentleness and acceptance that smart and optimistic Elsa Emerson would, and as Laura tries to do, too, as she works throughout her life to reconcile her two selves.
That battle is the heart of this mesmerizing novel. Laura is a doting mother, a good wife and a cherished friend. She’s also a megastar. She strives to have it all. She struggles but puts her children’s best interests above all and attempts to reconcile with her estranged Wisconsin family and the demons of her past, all the while working to maintain her career and public persona. “There were only a handful of moments Laura could think of, in the span of her entire life, when she was unable to identify the seam in between what she felt and what she said or did, moments during which all of the selves that she’d ever been lined up perfectly, with no cracks in between.”
Adding to Straub’s subtle touch is a scarcity of dialogue; the author relies instead on a stream, albeit it an interesting and well-written stream, of narrative. A tad off-putting at first, it soon comes to be comfortable, as if this story is unfolding from a talented movie director’s viewpoint, one who manages to display Laura’s inner workings without a lot of talking and hand-wringing. “Laura looked over her shoulder and saw Ginger and Bill sitting right behind her. Her mother hadn’t come, but Josephine was two seats over from Ginger, having flown in on her own dime, as soon she’d heard. She stared straight ahead, steady as a mermaid of the prow of a ship. . . . Everyone was watching (Laura’s) face, as if trying to gauge her misery.”
The novel ends in 1980. With much unhappiness and disappointment behind her, Laura/Elsa reinvents herself once again, an ending fit for any true Hollywood classic.
Amy Canfield is a freelance writer in Portland, Me.