“I chose this,” Laura said, “but I chose everything else too”.
I can’t quite believe, with a surname as distinctive as that, it took me until the day I started reading this book to put it together. Namely, that Emma Straub is the daughter of Peter Straub. Maybe it’s because I’m no fan of his work, maybe because this book’s subject matter is so far removed from anything he has written. Or maybe I am a doofus. Either way, it’s moot. I’m a sucker for old Hollywood glamour and so I wanted to read this book from the day I heard about it.
Laura Lamont is born Elsa Emerson, in Door County. Her parents run a summer theatre out of their barn and Elsa loves nothing more than being on stage and in the limelight from an early age. After a family tragedy, she wants nothing more than to get out and get to Hollywood, so hitches herself to the first wagon to come along. From that humble beginning, she rises to the top of her game, as Laura Lamont, before inevitably tumbling back down to earth.
There is nothing new being said here, no revelatory ground being struck. Lamont is torn between being a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend, a movie star and splits herself into being all of them until she forgets who she really is. This is a well worn narrative, but Straub navigates it so deftly that you race through the book, investing in and caring about all the characters. I was won over by her style when her first description of Elsa/Laura is “It was what their father called A Norwegian Face, which meant it had the look of a woman who had seen fifteen degrees below zero and still gone out to milk the cows” .
What does not make sense though is why Straub chose to fictionalise 95% of the studios and stars she brings into the story. Not only that, but to do so in such a thin way as to make it obvious who she’s really talking about, while occasionally throwing in references to Garbo. I found this to be a little jarring and wondered why she didn’t either go the whole hog of creating entirely fictional studios, films and stars, or just have them all be real.
It’s a minor criticism, when all is said and done, since while it occasionally jarred, it didn’t impair my enjoyment. Whatever your opinion of Elsa Emerson (and I can imagine she proves divisive), there’s no denying that Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is a treat to read.