It’s hard to write a review of Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures without just making that review a laundry list of things Straub did downright correctly. It’s hard, too, not to draw parallels between the well depicted and seemingly lost Golden Age glamor as seen in the previously reviewed Kino, as well as the tough stoicism of Norwegians that Karen Iversen’s Full Body Burden underlined so heavily in June. It’s so easy to tell what Straub excels at on the page, since what we’re reading is purely a chronology of someone whose very life (or the reinvention of it) wows us. Taken together, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is a Golden Age–worthy story in itself, something straightforward and wrenching and remembered.
I will confess to bias in how I immediately latched on to the childhood of the girl that would become Laura Lamont – Elsa Emerson, the youngest of a family of sturdy blondes from Door County, Wisconsin. The we-don’t-talk-about-it Midwest, the keep-your-head-down nature of an unglamorous life – these are the benchmarks of an unlikely emigrant to Hollywood, but Laura-to-be is equipped with all the trappings of a star whom no one has to worry about becoming a diva. (Emma Straub, as far as I can tell, is “from New York” – but I sense a familiarity with my homeland that extends beyond simple research. Do I detect a Great Lakes upbringing?)
It is that non-diva quality that is one of the pleasant surprises along the path of Laura Lamont’s glamorous life, and one deserving of praise. Straub takes a story we know – the rise from modest roots to a life of fame and fortune – and doesn’t necessarily turn it on its head or anything so drastic, but just shears it of what we’ve definitely heard before. Laura doesn’t “let fame go to her head,” for example; she really is grateful for the lucky turns that lead her to the career she’s gained, and always feels she has more people to thank. Her first marriage does not end messily, as one might expect it to do as both husband and wife shed their former lives for their Tinseltown personas. Nor is her second marriage to a bigwig Hollywood studio executive anything macabre or melodramatic: Irving Green, of Gardner Brothers Studios, treats Laura (whom he himself stylishly renamed) with a warmth and generosity that could make you cry for how much you know our heroine needed it. Laura’s best friend, Ginger, has a presence that waxes and wanes throughout, but quarrels are never escalated, and bonds are never betrayed. Straub has good instincts for a first-time novelist: she knows that the human dramas of birth, grief, failure, and success don’t need any help to play themselves out to their fullest, and indeed, can be made no fuller whether the subject of those events is a celebrity or nobody at all.
Still, Laura/Elsa cannot forget the ever-present delineation of who she is and who she has been. The divides are evident everywhere, and the guilt she feels throughout is a result of the woman herself not even knowing which one she’d rather be. To complicate the schism, the book opens with a tragedy involving Elsa’s sister Hildy, one horrific enough to occupy a large swath of Elsa and Laura alike, and to create a tension between wanting to remain in Door County with her sister’s legacy and desiring a life in Hollywood, which Hildy was always better suited for than the Midwestern cherry farms. How do we pay tributes to loved ones lost – and what happens when those gestures are misinterpreted as abandonment? Guilt, it seems, is capable of cutting deeper with every milestone of success, and Straub is surprisingly adept at twisting that knife. The sympathy I had for Laura was weighty, and it lasted – the woman does, after all, mother three children into adulthood, all of which we see – but even though it’s not a fast and furious life, it is one that always feels solid, real, and out of everyone’s hands, much as you’d like to steer it towards a deserved and welcome contentment.
Despite her unlikely trajectory, Elsa – Laura – never ceases to feel like any and every woman you might know. That doesn’t mean she’s generic, not by any means – it means that she is driven by the same hopes and loves that drive any one of us non–notorious types, and mercifully, those motivations within her character aren’t muddled by the author’s desire to inject an arbitrary gravity that reads, “but she’s A STAR!”
It is that authorial presence of mind that makes this book what it is. Laura and Elsa are complete equals in their ability to grab us. Ultimately, what reason would Straub have to discriminate on the basis of fame? The difference between what compels us to a book about a citizen or a book about a star is no wider a gap than what compels their creators to write them. Laura Lamont will ensnare you in her own right, from well before to well after any lights surround her name.