Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub [ website | twitter ]
Publication Date: September 4, 2012
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Target audience: Adult
Keywords: 1920s, Hollywood, family drama, theatre/films
Format read: ARC from Putnam. (Thanks!)
Summary: Since she was little, Elsa has been enamored with the small playhouse her family runs. Her dad directs and acts, her sister dreams of being a star, and she loves to be around the stage. A heartbreaking event and the need to get out of her small town leads Elsa to Hollywood with her young husband, a fellow actor. As Elsa’s dreams of stardom face ups and downs, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures spans over 50 years of love, family, roadblocks and success.
Like a certain little girl named Frances Gumm who had a humble beginning in Minnesota in a vaudeville group, Elsa Emerson, the youngest of three sisters, loved to watch the inner workings of her family’s playhouse every summer. The actors who came in and out, her dad’s energy as as director and actor, her beautiful and vivacious sister, Hildy, and the small opportunity to make an appearance on stage. In 1938, the same year Frances Gumm started filming a little movie called The Wizard of Oz under the name Judy Garland, Elsa Emerson was on her way to morphing into Laura Lamont, glamorous and famed newcomer to Hollywood.
After getting to know Elsa as a youngster, I was surprised she was the one to escape Wisconsin. It almost seemed out of character. She idolized her father, and loved the comfort and creativity that came out of her family’s little theater. But being the observer caused Elsa to understand a few things a bit too early and see a lot she didn’t want to see. When a tragic event occurs and disrupts her family circle, getting married young and jetting off to California seems like the best option.
Straub’s writing is filled with brilliant descriptions, and very little dialogue. The novel is a little dense and takes some patience to get through but the payoff is worth it. Through the fancy times and tougher moments, Straub skillfully keeps Laura amazingly down to earth. She does go through her share of disappointment, regret, and triumph (although maybe not for the reasons she originally thought). Through Laura’s path at times seems familiar (a la Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe), Straub is able to instill a certain amount of hope between the lines.
Plus, the supporting characters — especially Ginger, Elsa’s best friend and a ringer for Lucille Ball; Irving, a man who changes her life; and later, her children, especially her son, Junior — brought much to the story and broke up the times when Laura wasn’t engaging in much action.
I’m a huge fan of classic movie stars so it was refreshing to read a fictional account. In the years that span Laura’s youth and the later years of her life, she continually battled between the small town girl who wanted fame and fortune, and the star with all the pressure, responsibility and joy that came along with it. Life, understandably, grew a bit confusing and overwhelming when one identity took over the other, and I enjoyed following as Laura regained a content balance.