Book review: ‘Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures’ by Emma Straub

Laura Lamont's Life in PicturesGrowing 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!

ISBN: 1594488452 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers
in exchange for my honest thoughts


California, here we come — right back where we started from

So I’m back from California! I don’t know how I could have possibly seen or done more in four and a half days — and I had an absolutely fantastic time, and I couldn’t have gotten away with friends at a better time. As I’d hoped, the West Coast sunshine and time away from ordinary life did me a world of good . . . and helped put many things into perspective for me.

As we cruised down Sunset Boulevard, watched the sunset in Santa Monica, zipped around San Diego, stood in the Pacific Ocean, shopped at Hollywood & Highland and even saw the cast of “New Moon” (more on that later!), I watched my young life come into focus. Nothing about living is perfect — we’re going to hurt others and be hurt, feel like winners but sometimes like failures, forget how to trust and watch ourselves become vulnerable all over again. But all of that? Worth it. And all of my troubles? Not really troubles at all. Life — messy, complicated, painful, extraordinary — is beautiful.

Yeah, travel always makes me wax philosophical.

Good morning BaltimoreSo California! Gorgeous. We arrived at San Diego at 10 a.m. local time on Nov. 4 after getting up at 2:30 a.m. EST and flying for six hours. I watched the sunrise every day for almost a week straight on this vacation — a surreal experience! Especially since it’s rare to find me up before 8 a.m. — even on work days. I suck at mornings. But watching the sky turn colors as I sat on our little plane, listening to Owl City and feeling my life shift again? Gorgeous.

After an uneventful flight in which I alternated between napping lightly and reading According To Jane, we landed in San Diego! After successfully getting our rental SUV, Kim, Elizabeth, Nichole and I cruised around the city, had a delicious BBQ lunch/dinner and spent the evening walking near Ocean Beach and snapping photos at Sunset Cliffs — a sp0t recommended to us by the awesome staff at the restaurant where we had lunch. The Cliffs definitely lived up to their name, I can tell you that! So I officially watched the sun rise on one coast and set on the other. We literally watched the dying of the light, Kim and I standing on the edge of a precipice — literally — until the last few rays had disappeared. An awesome way to start the trip!


Sunset Cliffs


We rounded out our first night in California by heading to San Diego’s Gaslamp District for drinks at Whiskey Girl, where we watched part of the Yankees winning the World Series. I like baseball as much as the next sportswriter’s daughter, but the highlight of that experience for me was just wandering through town and exploring with the girls. It was almost impossible for me to comprehend how far away from home we were — and walking around a strange city with people just wrapping up the work day! At that point — around 6 p.m. PST — I’d been awake for 16 some-odd hours. And by “dinnertime”? Yeah, I was ready to call it a night.

So we did — but not before stopped at El Indio, a restaurant in San Diego that was featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” If it’s good enough for Guy Fieri, it’s good enough for Meg! Our tacos were great, though I was so delirious with exhaustion at that point, you probably could have tossed a bowl of snack peanuts in front of me and I’d have written a joyous song about them. And sung it to you. Loudly.

On Thursday morning, we played a game called Spot The East Coast Girls — we were the ones up at 5:30 a.m., texting our friends and family back home and staring at each other with slightly dazed expressions. Jet lag was our constant companion on the West Coast, tagging along and kicking our tails at every turn. But the bright side of getting up before the sun? We had no trouble at all getting showered, checked out, breakfasted and on the road by 8:30 a.m.!

Yes, friends, it was time for Disneyland, one of the happiest places on Earth! Our drive from San Diego to Anaheim was very scenic and, considering we hadn’t yet made it to Los Angeles, not totally traffic congested. We got to the theme park just as it was opening at 10 a.m. and made our way to Disney’s California Adventure first, where we made our way to awesome rides like the Tower Of Terror and Soarin’ Over California. In Disneyland itself, we saw Sleeping Beauty’s Castle — pretty, though surprisingly small compared to Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World — and admired everything already dressed up for Christmas! We spent hours wandering around the parks and even met Mickey Mouse himself. Nichole, a newbie to the world of Disney parks, was especially thrilled!


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Kim, Nichole, Elizabeth and Meg with Mickey


After we left Disney, exhaustion was definitely creeping up on me again. We drove into Los Angeles and, for the first time, I could truly appreciate all the griping folks do about traffic in the city. Hey, I’m from D.C. — traffic-wise, it’s no picnic over here, either! (The Beltway at rush hour, anyone?) I’ve scoffed at the complaints of Californians about their traffic in the past, but trust me — no more. Dude, it was horrible. It took us about two hours to get from the freeway outside the city to our hotel on Highland Avenue. We were on the 101 or Route 5 or something — I’m not sure, Garmin did the work — but it was painful. Thankfully we had good friends and good music to keep us from going insane . . . and we did get inside L.A. Woo! We wrapped up our first night in the city by getting dinner at Hollywood & Highland and doing some light shopping. And for me? Lights out by 10 p.m.! I’m such a rascal, I know!

We were up early again on Friday, making our way to beaches up and down the coast. We left L.A. in the morning bound for Malibu, Laguna Beach, Venice Beach and Santa Monica. Driving the Pacific Coast Highway was fantastic — and all of our stops? Totally a photographer’s dream! I was beside myself, often hanging half of my body out of the car in an effort to snap the mountains or the coastline or a fantastic sign along the road. We even visited Pepperdine University in Malibu, where the stunning views would keep my mind off anything even vaguely related to studying. Seriously, how do those kids get anything done? We had lunch in Laguna at an oceanfront restaurant and, after seven years, I got to dip my toes in the Pacific Ocean once more! And it was cold. Serious Polar Bear Club material.


Driving to Malibu

malibu

flip_flops

me_in_laguna


We wrapped up our big beach day by stopping briefly in Venice Beach on our way to Santa Monica, where we were bound and determined to see the sunset! We’d missed it the evening before while stuck in traffic on the freeway, and it was so pink and exquisite that it broke my heart. The excellent news? We definitely made to the pier, where we wandered about and watching the sun sink over the water. I took a solid 50 photos of just that experience and made sure to call my dad from the pier, one of his favorite spots!


santa_monica_sunset


After we watched the dying of the light again, it was back to Hollywood for the evening! After spending the whole day freezing to death in chilly water and even chillier breezes once it got dark, we made the unanimous decision to have a relaxed evening — attire-wise. I threw on a pair of jeans and a hoodie before we headed back to Hollywood & Highland in search of dinner and something to occupy the evening.

Um, well, we found it, all right.

We figured out something was up as soon as we pulled into the garage on Orange Avenue, a spot where we’d been parking for days without any trouble. It was jammed. Considering it was a Friday night in Los Angeles, I figured maybe people were just out and about in the city. No big deal. Well, after we wedged Blue Beauty in a spot and made the climb upstairs, I heard it: the distinct rumble of an incredibly excited crowd.

An incredibly excited crowd of Twilight fans.

After we stood on the third balcony of Hollywood & Highland for a minute or two to see what was up and heard someone say something about the “New Moon” soundtrack, you could have knocked Kim and me over with little feathers. Mind you, we had no idea what was going on — or who was going to appear. Only that something Twilight-related was happening and, gosh darnit, we weren’t moving until we figured out what it was!

Not even ten minutes later, the event host announced that Death Cab For Cutie was coming out — and I think I yelled myself hoarse on the spot. I freaking love Death Cab, featured on the soundtrack, and actually got tears in my eyes when they started playing “Cath…,” my favorite song from their most recent album. Their “set” was only two songs long, but hey — never in my life did I imagine I’d get to see them play live in L.A.

Or that I’d get to see Rob Pattinson live — in the flesh — with the rest of the “New Moon” cast, including Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner, just minutes later.

Yes, friends, that’s right — ROBERT PATTINSON walked out onto the tiny stage before me and I was pretty sure I was going to have a total mental breakdown. Kim’s and my hyperventilating was legendary — and I’m only glad that Elizabeth and Nichole had retreated into the restaurant to wait for us and didn’t see the total breakdown of my sanity. Because it was bad. Screaming, crying, jumping and, sadly, the breaking of my digital camera. When Rob’s slim form took the stage, I managed to work myself into such a tizzy that I actually cracked the screen of my camera by jostling it around in my purse. (Thankfully, I’m so OCD that I’d brought two cameras with me on the trip, and that was the smaller and least expensive of the two.)

Even with the malfunctioning screen, I managed to snap some pics — but please don’t scoff at the overall suckiness of my shots! In photos two and three below, note that, from left, are Robert, Kristen, Taylor, the host and several other cast members (the Wolf Pack?). For a full account of what went down, visit Letters To Twilight!


Death Cab For Cutie at the 'New Moon' soundtrack event

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'New Moon' cast: Robert, left, Kristen and Taylor


Needless to say, Kim and I were riding quite high after our unexpected but serendipidous celebrity sighting and jabbered about it all through dinner (sushi) and dessert (Cold Stone ice cream). I was even too pumped to lament the death of my camera, though I’m certainly mourning it now! It served me — and the first half of my trip — well, so I’ll remember it fondly!

Saturday was a big day of sight-seeing, shopping, eating and drinking; the day found us at Cathedral of Our Lady Of The Angels, an enormous church in L.A.; Dodger Stadium, where we convinced a security guard to let us in and take photos (win!); shopping on Rodeo Drive; buying four matching rings at Tiffany & Co. as momentos of our amazing trip; having lunch in Beverly Hills; getting mistaken for celebrities by the paparazzi (!); grabbing cupcakes at famed shop Sprinkles (mine was pumpkin, y’all!); driving up to Griffith Observatory and eating our dessert outside; finally spotting the famous Hollywood sign; stopping by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Walk Of Fame; drinks at the Roosevelt Hotel and dinner (sushi again!) on Sunset Boulevard.

Did you get all that? We were booking it.


Cathedral Of Our Lady Of The Angels

Me in Dodger Stadium

Rodeo Drive

With the Ambassador of Beverly Hills

Tiffany's box on our lunch menu

Eating our Sprinkles cupcakes at Griffith Observatory

The girls in Griffith Observatory

Me with the Hollywood sign

Grauman's Chinese Theater

My hands in Daniel Radcliffe's hands! Harry from 'Harry Potter'

Drinks at the Roosevelt Hotel


Yeah, needless to say — by the time I laid my little head on the pillow at our hotel on Highland, I slept like a baby. I don’t think I’ve been that tired since I went to London! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised . . . my vacations are always more adventures than actual relaxing trips. But I like it that way.

On our final day in California, we again greeted the sun as we prepared to leave L.A. and return to San Diego, where three of the four of us were flying back to Baltimore that evening. In order to break up the two-and-a-half hour trek back to SD, we made a stop in Oceanside, Calif., definitely one of the prettiest places we saw! Considering it was a random, spur-of-the-moment stop, I was very happy we pulled over. And paid $1 to park — our cheapest fare in the state!

oceanside_sign


oceanside


Back near San Diego, we made a stop in La Jolla — a seriously, unimaginably gorgeous place. It was hard to believe the rocky beaches were real — and filled with live sea lions! La Jolla Cove and Children’s Pool Beach were teeming with them. Kim took videos on her BlackBerry as the crowd ogled them! Adorable!


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Sea lions, left, at La Jolla Cove


After making a stop at the famed Torrey Pines Golf Course, we wandered back to Old Town San Diego to snap photos and get ice cream. By mid-afternoon, it was off to the island of Coronado — just over the bridge from San Diego. We toured through Hotel del Coronado, which was gorgeous, and hung out a little on the beach there.


Me in Old Town San Diego

Hotel del Coronado

Beach in Coronado


By the time it was starting to get dusky and we were just hours from heading to the airport for our red-eye flights back to reality, we began looking for a nice spot to stop and see the sunset. We found it at Silver Beach, which was deserted except for us — and our baggage of excellent memories. Kim and I sat on a ledge and watched until the sun had dipped completely into the Pacific, ending our West Coast vacation. Getting up and walking back to the SUV with full memory cards and a heavy heart was a really difficult thing to do.


Sunset at Silver Beach


Thankfully, my adventure wasn’t quite over — because I got to meet Jessica of Cover To Cover in San Diego! After dropping Kim and Nichole off at the airport, Elizabeth and I headed to where Jess was staying for a conference in the city. Mind you, Jess is from Philadelphia and I’m from Maryland — East Coast girls through and through. But fate somehow brought us both to the same place at the same time . . . just barely! My flight was at 10 p.m. that evening and Jess was headed home the following morning, but we managed to find each other.

We had dinner at Elephant & Castle (coincidentally, the same restaurant chain where I met up with tons of other fantastic book bloggers in September!) and chatted like the old friends we are. It was awesome to meet her in person! I’m sure we could have talked a few more hours, but I had to dash off to make my flight — ending one seriously awesome trip.


jess_me


I can’t say enough good things about my time away . . . and am just hoping I can hold on to this bold, happy feeling as long as possible! There’s definitely nothing like travel to change the way you see the world — and to remind you the world is a big, big place. I’ll always remember standing before the Pacific Ocean and feeling small but tall, and loved that I could share the journey with new and old friends.

Now, where am I going next?

And if you’re feeling particularly brave, bored or, maybe, a combination of both,
I took more than 800 photos on my trip —
and you’re welcome to check them all out!