(This is the first novel whose prose I’ve fallen in love with since my last posting 11 books ago! I’ve been treated to some fine storytelling, even page-turners, but my reading heart and enthusiasm for blogging is not plot-driven. Always, I’m searching for beautiful prose that lifts you up – words and sentences crafted with warmth and precision and inventiveness and simplicity that touch you in ways others just don’t. At 306 pages, “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” is not a particularly lengthy hardback, but it took me longer than usual to read, as I found myself re-reading sentences, savoring the sweet-flowing writing style, even when the story turns not-so-sweet. This may be deemed Emma Straub’s debut novel, but it was preceded by three other manuscripts of varying genres, apparently all widely rejected. She was not dejected in the least, though, as she went on to earn an MFA (in Wisconsin, where Laura Lamont’s story begins) and then dreamed up this beautifully told story. [See more in the Sept/Oct 2012 “Poets & Writers” article, “Emma Straub’s Life in Letters.”] Those earlier writings and honing of her literary talent have served her extraordinarily well, for I felt as though each and every word in “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” was composed with painstaking care.)
FIFTY YEARS IN THE LIFE OF A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE STAR (1929 to 1980):
How can you not relish a fantasized story of a Hollywood movie star, inspired by a real starlet who graced the screen in the ’40s and ’50s (Jennifer Jones)? Of course, this being Hollywood, there are heartaches and downfalls. Yet, the story is written with a light touch, a charm, a politeness – “there is no kindness that went unnoticed” – from the lovely female voice of Elsa Emerson, who becomes Laura Lamont, Hollywood movie star. We first meet Elsa at age nine when she is living in rural Door County, Wisconsin, “the most beautiful place on earth.” She’s a delightful blond presence at the Cherry County Playhouse, a theatre company her beloved father, John, founded, housed at a barn on the family’s property complete with a cabin for summertime actors. This is where Elsa learns there is “power in pretend,” that applause is “the most beautiful song she had ever heard,” and that even if you are not “happy on the inside, the outside could be something else entirely.” Elsa has two sisters, Hildy and Josephine, who never leave this happy place, but Elsa does, for a reason I won’t spoil for you. She boards a bus to Los Angeles, and there meets good fortune in the form of a very powerful studio producer, Irving Green of The Gardner Brothers Studios, who dreams up Elsa’s new identity and devotes himself to helping her achieve stardom, appreciating that “Miss Wisconsin is all sweetness and light.” The reader feels this too through the author’s embracing of sweet and light prose.
Laura Lamont’s/Elsa Emerson’s life is told over five decades. Throughout the years, she wonders who is real: Elsa, the “good Wisconsin girl,” or Laura, the movie star? Hardly ever do the two feel to her as though they mesh as one. The times of Hollywood happiness and richness span an adoring marriage and doting motherhood to three children, great loves in her life. Old Hollywood was rollicking in its heyday, when a few big, powerhouse movie studios ruled the motion picture industry as well as the lives of those it made famous.
There’s a glamorous period of diamonds and sequins and Rolls Royces and white stoles, but we’re also looking into a full life, with its share of sadness and heavy-hearted regrets. The chronological chapters are nicely structured, so the fifty years move along at a good pace.
Laura Lamont may have rarely returned to her Wisconsin roots, something she doesn’t quite understand or forgive herself for, yet it’s Elsa Emerson’s Midwestern determination that ends up showing the world she really is someone special.
Happy Reading, Lorraine