By Emma Straub
Available now from Riverhead in hardcover and paperback (Penguin Random House)
I love stories of Old Hollywood. I get unbearably excited whenever Anne Helen Petersen posts a new entry in her column Scandals of Classic Hollywood. (And I can't wait to read her book when it comes out from Plume.) Basically, when I was offered a chance to review the paperback release of LAURA LAMONT'S LIFE IN PICTURES I jumped on it because I had been wanting to read the book.
At first I struggled to immerse myself in Emma Straub's debut. The title, which I enjoyed for its lyricism, I found quite apt as Elsa Emerson's life seemed to me a series of pictures. There was a stillness and a remove to the vignettes of her youth. Strangely, when I really became absorbed Laura Lamont's days as the biggest movie star were gone and she was a struggling mother of three almost grown children.
LAURA LAMONT'S LIFE IN PICTURES spans several decades, taking its heroine from her childhood in Wisconsin to her twilight years as a grand dame of the stage. In that time she changes her name, marries, dyes her hair, has children, and reconciles her childhood dreams with the reality of being a star - and worse, an adult. As I said in the previous paragraph, this book took a long time to really work for me. I found it interesting, but dry. Then it changed in one sentence, when Laura ignores something happening in front of her face because she doesn't trust her own instincts. She knows she has terrible instincts and feels she's better off ignoring something screamingly obvious because she can't possibly be right. It was a moment that summed up Laura perfectly.
Those looking for a really juicy, scandalous Old Hollywood read should probably look elsewhere. Laura never quite escapes the conservative nature of her youth. She does not live a totally pure life - no one does - but she is no hedonist. She lives an interesting life, but perhaps not the most interesting even in the story. My favorite was Ginger, a thinly veiled version of Lucille Ball and Laura's best friend. Who can resist the allure of the first female studio head? (Cinema and television fans will note fictional versions of many early stars.)
I think Straub is a talented writer and I'm looking forward to what she writes next. I'd be wildly enthusiastic about LAURA LAMONT'S LIFE IN PICTURES if I enjoyed the first half as much as the second half. As is, I'd recommend this debut to readers really intrigued by character, who want to spend a book getting a handle on a woman struggling to define herself.