The moment where an actor at the top of her career realizes the award she’s about to get is meaningless is just one of several standout tableaus in the 1930s Hollywood story Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures. The debut novel of Emma Straub—daughter of horror writer Peter Straub, and author of the short-story collection Other People We Married, which jumped from independent publisher Five Chapters to Riverhead this year—steers the fictional Laura Lamont through personal and historical trials she can’t foresee.
Laura is a Hollywood studio creation, but beneath the glamour, she sees herself as containing her meek younger self, rather than overshadowing her. The remnant of Elsa Emerson, who took up acting at the summer-stock theater in Wisconsin run by her parents, accompanies her even as far as the Oscar dais. Elsa married a fellow summer-stock actor in order to go to California, but tougher Laura Lamont sheds that husband when he becomes abusive, and seeks comfort in Irving, the studio executive who transforms her from comic blonde day-player to tragic brunette star. Fame provides Laura with material comfort, but it’s an insecure shelter against the world she came from, and its weakness becomes apparent as the studio where she began her career struggles to stay relevant and find a place for her.
Laura’s efforts to reconcile her personal and career ambitions gives a surprisingly modern gloss to her feelings of alienation, both from the working rhythms of studio life and from mothers like hers. As Laura loses her naïveté about her success and talents, Straub explores a character so passive within her own life, she often feels as remote on the page as she is to her fans onscreen. Straub sets Laura so exquisitely in place that it’s no mystery how she ended up the way she did, particularly given how her older sister’s thwarted Hollywood dreams shadow her into fame. Yet the observational blind spots causing her not to see how her industry is changing fail to prepare her for the uncomfortable jolt of reckoning that accompanies her middle age.
Still, Laura is just one pretty, shiny piece in a fascinating machine, and where Straub can’t open up her heroine, she gilds Old Hollywood with a lovely glut of detail, then peels it away as studio players like Elsa and her first husband face a harder, less steady existence. Capturing her fortunes and the concurrent fall of Irving as starmaker in the same swoon, Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures is just enough in love with its world to empathize with Laura’s loss of perspective, but not too much to judge its excesses and faults honestly.