Sunday, September 16, 2012

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures (Emma Straub)

I received an e-ARC of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures from NetGalley. I'm not sure if I have to say that, but I see it in reviews all the time and I figure it wouldn't hurt. As I was saying, I received an ARC of this book and I was pretty excited. I had seen something about this book online and the premise sounded exciting: the rise and fall of a Hollywood actress in the Golden Days.

Straub takes us on a journey through the life of one Elsa Emerson, a small-town Wisconsin girl whose father owns a local theatre in Door County. She grows up around the theatre and is enchanted by acting, eventually marrying one of her fellow players and moving to Hollywood to hit it big. She has two girls, rebrands herself as Laura Lamont, divorces her husband and then marries a studio executive. She's famous, she's beloved, she wins an Academy Award for one of her roles.

Then her life goes downhill. She can't keep being famous forever. Her family is crumbling, she can't find any actress work, she's depressed. It's all very tragic. One of the things I was worried about was the Marilyn Monroe potential--here's a book about a small-town girl who becomes famous in Hollywood. Fortunately, Straub never lets this get out of hand. Unfortunately, there are still some issues I have with the book.

For one, I don't like shorter books that follow the whole life of a character. This is a personal preference, I know, but I just feel like short books can't properly convey the whole character's life and growth. That was certainly the case here. Laura Lamont is suddenly a household famous name, but I don't feel like we ever get to see the build-up. We're just told that she is now famous. Suddenly, she's not very famous anymore. Again, no gradual loss of fame. Instead of showing us these changes, Straub will jump ahead in time. It's one of the dangers of a bildungsroman, because it's easy to skip explanation when you can instead move forward in time, more like a "highlights from her life" than a "let me explain her life".

There are also a lot of "issues" in the book: teen suicide, postpartum depression, anxiety disorders, pill addiction. These, again due to the nature of the book, are very rarely explored and come off as weak attempts to characterize Laura. I'm thinking specifically of the postpartum depression: she gives birth to her third child and the narration mentions in passing that sometimes Laura wants to smother him in his sleep. After that moment, it goes away. We don't see Laura battling or dealing with that problem anymore; it's just gone.

There are, of course, great parts of the book. Because Straub sets it in the 1940s and 1950s, we get an excellently-written view into the studio system of the era. Straub has such control over the detail that she puts into the setting that it feels authentic. Laura Lamont is, with the few exceptions I mentioned above, unique and interesting. She is a strong character. Other characters are interesting, too: the mother who hates her daughter for leaving for Hollywood, the studio executive who genuinely loves Laura. It's clear that the author's strong suits are setting and characterization--it's just a question of whether Straub can sustain it.

Overall, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures is an enjoyable, interesting read that would be most enjoyed by old movie buffs or film historians. Or people who like reading historical fiction.

My rating: 3.5/5
Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures on Goodreads
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