Synopsis: In 1920, Elsa Emerson is born to the owners of the Cherry County Playhouse in Door County, Wisconsin. Elsa relishes appearing onstage, where she soaks up the approval of her father and the embrace of the audience. But when tragedy strikes her family, her acting becomes more than a child’s game of pretend. While still in her teens, Elsa marries and flees to Los Angeles. There she is discovered by Hollywood mogul Irving Green, who refashions her as an exotic brunette screen siren and renames her Laura Lamont. But fame has its costs, and while Laura tries to balance career, family, and personal happiness, she realizes that Elsa Emerson might not be gone completely. Ambitious and richly imagined, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is as intimate—and as bigger-than-life—as the great films of the golden age of Hollywood.
In many ways this is a story we all know: small-town girl aspires to be famous, runs away to Hollywood, changes her name, and actually beats the odds by becoming a star . . . for a while, at least. It’s a story that borders on cliché, so rarely told well anymore that I almost never read novels like this. However, I was thoroughly impressed with Emma Straub’s story collection, Other People We Married, that I decided to give her novels a try — starting with her debut, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. The synopsis (which can be seen above) didn’t immediately grab me, but I figured Straub’s writing would make up for it.
Boy, does it — not that the writing has to make up for anything, because once the reader gets into the meat of the story (beyond the description on the jacket), he or she will be totally and completely engrossed. No question. Straub truly brings the character of Laura Lamont to life, making this tale of a small town girl’s search for fame — and the bumps in the road she must get over before, during, and after — one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing.
Perhaps what is most striking about Straub’s work is how she says so much in so little time — this is very much Laura Lamont’s (or Elsa, as she’s known in her pre-Hollywood years) coming-of-age tale, fully-fleshed in 300 pages. The reader follows her from her early years in life to late middle age. Her marriages, her kids, the films she makes, successes, failures. It’s all so vivid — I felt as though I was living life in Hollywood circa 1943 right alongside Laura, Irving, and all the rest. Lamont is one of the most realistic characters I’ve read about in a long time, and that’s refreshing. When she hurt, I felt hurt. When she felt she was on the cusp of greatness, success, bliss . . . Why, I felt optimistic about what the future held too.
I really can’t recommend this novel highly enough. Emma Straub is a young author writing well beyond her years, and I’m eager to read more of her work.