Growing up in her family’s homegrown theater in beautiful Door County, Wisconsin, Elsa Emerson wants nothing more than to bathe in the spotlight of her older sister. Beautiful Hildy is enigmatic, energizing, lovely — all attributes young Elsa can’t help but admire. When actors descend on the family farm each summer, Elsa admires the one-of-a-kind plays they perform — though the theater doesn’t draw her like it does Hildy.
After a family tragedy levels the Emersons, Elsa gets her first taste of the stage. Drawn in by the warmth of attention, Elsa makes an impulsive decision to marry a traveling actor and leave for Los Angeles. Elsa and Gordon have two daughters in short order — and while Gordon’s star ascends, Elsa’s dream of fame is sidelined by the babies. She struggles to be content with her new role in life, but can’t shake the feeling of more — and quietly begins to ready herself for another crack at acting. After a studio executive rechristens her Laura Lamont, Elsa/Laura takes her first tentative steps into Hollywood — and never quite knows if she’s rising or falling.
Spanning decades, Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is part family saga, part cautionary tale, part love story. Straub’s vivid language, pointed descriptions and phenomenal pacing drew me into Laura’s world and kept me captive. Though the book has a melancholic tone, I never felt desperately sad walking with Laura — and though I could have easily felt disconnected from her lifestyle, Straub’s lovely descriptions of golden-age Hollywood reminded me of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. I was engrossed.
Elsa’s story begins in the 1920s, and I loved the early descriptions of Door County. Wisconsin is wholly unfamiliar to me — and I enjoyed seeing the Emersons’ lives through Elsa’s lens. As the story shifts into the 1940s and beyond, showcasing Elsa/Laura’s life as a young mother and aspiring star, I sympathized with her attempts to create an identity beyond the young milkmaid she’d always been — though Elsa’s isn’t an identity easily shed.
Laura’s tale doesn’t follow a predictable arc. Eventually she earns top accolades for a pivotal role, but Straub doesn’t push Laura to the tippy-top of Hollywood only to watch her fall. It was wonderful to read a story without any real hint of where it was going, and I appreciated the twists. Though I got angry — really angry — by some of the unfair tragedies, this novel stayed one step ahead of depressing. A few events leveled me, and it’s been a while since I physically gasped while reading . . . but those are the literary moments that keep me coming back for more. Straub had me in the palm of her hand.
While some characters felt very two-dimensional, very stock, I feel that was the intention. Many of the rowdy, fake L.A. girls were just that: girls. Having come from the north, Laura always seemed a step above them — and beyond their simpering. I liked that Laura wasn’t weighed down by typical celebrity problems . . . especially when she had so many of her own issues at home. My only regret is that we didn’t learn more about Josephine, Laura’s eldest sister — a young woman with plenty of secrets and tragedies born alone. She could have a novel herself.
If you’re seeking a salacious story full of Hollywood gossip, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures ain’t it. It’s very much the introspective, quiet journey of one small-town woman battling grief, ambition and hope in equal measure. I really loved it, was mesmerized by it. Lovers of literary fiction will find much to absorb in Straub’s moving depiction of the many hats we wear throughout our lives — and the pink glow of hope that binds us all.
4.5 out of 5!