Despite knowing nothing of Emma Straub (her previous short story collections or her famous father), I had high hopes for Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Maybe it was the glamorous cover – I’m shallow like that – or the book’s setting during the Golden Age of Hollywood, but I was hoping for a dramatic, cinematic epic. What I got instead felt more like the bookish equivalent of an afternoon made-for-TV movie. It was pleasant enough, it didn’t make me think too much and it passed the time.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is definitely ambitious in its scope, spanning five decades of one actress’s life from the 1920s. Elsa Emerson’s childhood in Wisconsin revolves around the summer theatre her parents run in their barn. With her two sisters, the dramatic Hildy and the sensible Josephine, she grows up surrounded by actors with the sound of applause in the air. Hildy dreams of a career in the movies, but when tragedy ends those dreams, Elsa flees to Hollywood and brings her sister’s ambitions to life. She becomes Laura Lamont – Oscar winner and main star of Gardner Brothers studio – marries the studio head and has three children. Of course, as these stories go, dreams can’t last forever and Laura/ Elsa’s luck takes a turn for the worse as her career inevitably fades away.
As a plot, it’s almost a cliché. It’s been done before in A Star is Born and The Love of The Last Tycoon, which Straub quotes from, so if you’re going to tell this story again, you need to either bring some new insight to the tale or do it really, really well. Straub has written a relatively good story, but it never quite transports you, missing that Hollywood magic to lift it from the mundane.
For me, the main character, Elsa/ Laura was a bit of a vacuum. She doesn’t make things happen, they happen to her and we rarely know how she feels about them. Her move to Hollywood and her transformation into Laura Lamont are based on the decisions of the men in her life; she just goes along with their plans. Her lack of insight or inner thought make her a frustrating narrator and creates a story where it feels like we are reading a series of events – this happened, then that happened – with no arc or development. This passiveness works well for the Laura, the actress
More than anything, Laura wanted to be given lines, to be given the outline of another human being to pour herself into
But the characters passiveness, her compliance to go along with what others think best means that as a reader we learn virtually nothing about other, possibly more interesting characters. Potential dramas become diluted. How does Elsa feel to fall pregnant shortly after arriving in Hollywood? Why does she not contact her family back home despite their earlier closeness? Is an apparent suicide attempt an accident or not? Laura herself is uninterested in these questions, so we get no depth, no emotional impact. Like the effect of Laura’s ‘little blue pills’ the story is dim, soft round the edges and we float through it.
For a heroine in a story about a movie star, Laura is not the self-aggrandizing diva you might expect, instead she comes across as a professional doing a job, who wants to work and be with her family. In fact, the book at times feels more like a family drama looking at the tenuous bonds that link siblings, parents, lovers and friends, but even to explore the book at this level is to be kept at arm’s length. At one point in the book, Laura thinks about the fact that her second beloved husband was an orphan and realises that;
She never thought about that – why?
Laura doesn’t think about much and as such we don’t have much to think about her.
Straub does try to explore some big issues here – the question of personal identity, the price of fame, problems of addiction and mental health but it says nothing new or substantial about any of them. Laura appears to struggle to hold on to who she really is, but that struggle is depicted in fleeting thoughts rather than dramatic action.
There were only a handful of moments Laura could think of, in the span of her entire life, when she was unable to identify the seam in between what she felt and what she said or did, moments during which all of the selves that she’d ever been lined up perfectly, with no cracks in between
For a novel that spans fifty years, there is little history and the world of Hollywood never truly comes to life. There is no Depression, no World War II. The ‘60s and ‘70s don’t get a look in except for a quick reference to eye liner. Homosexuality is hinted at, in both Laura’s son and sister, but never explored – to the point where I wondered why it was included at all.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not an unpleasant read. Straub can craft a story and has some moments of inspiration and inventiveness, but this book rarely transcends it’s subject matter. When Laura attends the Academy Awards she notices
… everyone else in the room was held together with glitter and glue, with only Hollywood troubles, the kind that were solved by the end of the picture.
The same could be said of this book which can’t quite escape the shackles of its source material to become its own creature. If you feel like reading a book on the rise of a Hollywood star, I would avoid this one and go straight to Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates. To use a movie analogy, it’s an Oscar winner, while Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is more of a B-movie.
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!