Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

In brief: Elsa Emerson lives in country Wisconsin. She’s happy, but events lead her to Hollywood, where Laura Lamont is born. Charmed Hollywood life? No way.

The good: It’s a solid family drama concentrating on Laura.

The not-so-good: The glitz of Hollywood is a fairly minor character.

Why I chose it: Saw it on the shelf and thought it would be fun.

Year: 2012

Pages: 306

Publisher: Picador

Setting: America

My rating: 7 out of 10

The cover of this book makes me think of a glamorous life in Hollywood’s Golden Era. (Interestingly, I notice other covers for Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures delete the cigarette in hand which did not in any way contribute to my feelings of glamour!) The cover is a little misleading, as while a good part of the protagonist’s time is spent in Hollywood, this is more of a family drama/life story than glamour. There not many descriptions of lavish dinners and premieres or exotic locales. This is the Hollywood that chews you up and spits you out.

Laura Lamont begins life as plain Elsa Emerson, youngest child of three in Wisconsin. The only thing not 100% normal in her life is that her parents run a theatre in their barn every summer. Wannabe actors and actresses come from near and far to tread the boards. For Elsa, this is what life is – new people to meet every summer and as she grows older, small parts. When her sister dies tragically, Elsa feels partly that she should try to lead her life. This culminates in a quick marriage to Gordon and heading to Los Angeles to seek Hollywood fame, which seems to be elusive until she meets a producer at a party. Irving Green renames her Laura Lamont, changes her hair colour and a star is born. A quick divorce, an Oscar and the former Elsa is on the road to fame and fortune. But missed opportunities and tragic events bring Laura down. Will she recover to return to her Golden Era?

I felt that Hollywood and acting played a somewhat minor role in this book – it was more about Elsa/Laura (after her name change, Elsa is only very occasionally referred to by that name – it’s a little confusing initially) and her life. I found her heyday in 1930s-1950s Hollywood to be very interesting as the actors were ‘owned’ by the studio. They only worked in the pictures for the studio they were contracted to, with very little way as to what they were cast in. Laura’s ‘loaning’ to another studio is interesting to read about too. The backdrop of the studios (literally a town with school, hospital and dance classes available) was interesting and I wish it had been utilised more often. As Laura’s children grow, the focus is more on her as a mother, encouraging them and admonishing them. To me, this is where Laura Lamont lost some of her sparkle – she was just like any other mother with the same hopes and insecurities.

The rise of Laura’s friend Ginger along a very steep trajectory was an interesting comparison to Laura’s career. Could Laura have obtained that if she’d decided to be the funny one? Laura seemed to be stuck in her early success, while Ginger trail blazed her way to the top, writing the rules for women as she went. Laura seems to pale more and more as Ginger shines. This leaves her financially bankrupt and without any form of career, reduced to being a secretary. The funny thing is that the devastation didn’t really hit Laura the way I thought it would – she seems a little bland and accepting that things are going to be terrible.

The story does end on a tinge of hope, but the majority is devoted to family rather than the Hollywood days, which was disappointing. If Laura was a stronger character, this may have been more interesting. But her life just seemed to fall into calamities one after another with very little reaction. The writing was strong (Straub’s narrative carrying me though to finish this) but I didn’t feel I cared for Laura enough. Did she devote her whole life to living as her sister did? Did she decide at the end to live her own life? To be honest, I wasn’t really fussed what happened.

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