A novel set during the golden age of Hollywood has an instant allure, promising old-fashioned glamour and a look behind the scenes of the movies, plus possibly a whiff of scandal. That’s not what this novel is really about though, despite its title and monochrome cover …
Elsa Emerson’s family own a theatre in Wisconsin, and she grows up amongst the summer stock theatre crowd. Elsa is the youngest of three sisters and idolises Hildy her oldest sister who is beautiful and has potential as an actress. When Elsa is still only eight, Hildy commits suicide after getting pregnant by the leading actor that summer who then abandons her.
When Elsa is old enough, it’s not a surprise when she falls for that season’s leading man, but ends up marrying him. They head for Hollywood where Gordon has high hopes, and Elsa is soon pregnant. Gordon does get a contract for small parts with a studio, but it is Elsa that will soon eclipse him when she is spotted at a party by a studio boss.
He nodded. ‘Here’s what you should do. Do you mind if I tell you?’ Irving didn’t wait for her to respond. ‘Have the baby. Take a few months, lose thirty pounds. Not so much that you lose the milkmaid look, though. It’s your trademark – Miss Wisconsin, all sweetness and light. And Elsa Pitts isn’t gonna cut it, is it?’ Irving looked at her hard. Elsa blushed. He stared for so long that Elsa began to sweat even more. She reflexively put her hands around her belly, as if to protect the child from whatever was to come. Then Irving snapped his fingers so loudly that it echoed through the room, over all the chatting and flirting. Elsa was surprised that such a sharp, loud noise could come out of such a small person. ‘Laura Lamont,’ he said. ‘You want it? It’s yours. Come see me when you’re ready.’
Irving makes good on his promise, Elsa becomes Laura, and within a few years she’s a star – with two children already. Gordon can’t cope with this or being a father, and falls by the wayside, leaving Irving to become Laura’s husband number two. They have a near perfect relationship, which is cemented by Laura winning an Oscar, and finally providing Irving with a son.
By then we’re not quite halfway through the novel, and already Laura’s best years are behind her, which was a shame, for I’d enjoyed it a lot up until then. The second half is taken up with family matters, Irving’s poor health, Laura’s descent into addiction to pills, and an attempt at a comeback.
Elsa/Laura remains a girl from Wisconsin throughout really, and this holds the narrative back from really getting under the skin of the Hollywood studio system, which is what I’d hoped for more of. Straub doesn’t overglamorise the life of being a contract actor, fading star, or come to think of it, a major player.
This book is really about family though, not Hollywood. Wisconsin and LA really are physically so far apart, there’s little possibility of going home for the holidays. Elsa’s relationships with her parents are very different too – Elsa was very close to her father, and he has followed her career from afar; her mother though can’t forgive her for taking Hildy’s place, and this shows when her parents come to the Academy Awards and meet their grandchildren and Irving for the first time…
… Laura felt wretched next to her mother, because it should have been Hildy here in Hollywood, and she – still Elsa, always Elsa – should have been at home, back in Door County, her entire world only as wide as the peninsula. It was all wrong; Laura knew that. She was a body double, and her mother was the only one who saw it.
Many of the characters appeared to be inspired by real life actors and actresses – Laura’s best friend Ginger was a shoe-in for Lucille Ball for instance. I also gather that Laura herself has many parallels in her life with the actress Jennifer Jones, (thanks Red Rock Bookworm on Amazon).
A competent début and easy to read – I enjoyed this book. I did, however, wish that the first half had been longer, and the second shorter – a bit more Hollywood glamour and a bit less of real life butting in. (7.5/10)
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Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, pub Oct 11th, 2012 by Picador, hardback, 256 pages.