The story of a small town girl making it big in Hollywood is part of popular imagination, but in Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Emma Straub makes this familiar narrative her own. Straub’s first novel follows her heroine from adolescence through adulthood, creating a nuanced portrait of a woman set against the backdrop of old Hollywood.
The novel begins in Door County, Wisconsin, in 1929, where the Emerson family operates a popular summer theater named the Cherry County Playhouse. Elsa Emerson is the youngest of three daughters, a quintessential blonde nine-year-old Midwesterner who spends as much time as possible in the theater. She idolizes her beautiful but moody older sister Hildy, and has a special relationship with her father John, who directs and acts in the plays.
Elsa’s idyllic childhood is shattered when Hildy begins a tumultuous love affair with another actor, one that ends in tragedy. She grows up finding solace on the stage. So it’s not surprising when, still a teenager, she marries another actor, Gordon Pitts, and the two of them follow their dreams to Hollywood.
In California the couple’s honeymoon is cut short when Elsa gets pregnant. She stays home with their baby daughter Clara, while Gordon goes on auditions. By the time Gordon secures a contract with the Gardner Brothers movie studio, Elsa is pregnant again. But this is when fate intervenes. Elsa accompanies Gordon to a studio party, where she meets Irving Green, the studio’s vice president.
There is an unlikely but immediate attraction between the two. Irving is several years older than Elsa, and small in stature, but exudes power and intelligence. Just like a plot from a Hollywood movie, Irving asks her if she’s ever thought about acting, though he tells her she would need to change her name. And that’s when Laura Lamont is born.
With her new name, Laura wastes no time after her second daughter, Florence, is born to lose the baby weight so she can begin acting again. She quickly immerses herself in the Gardner Brothers studio life, as Irving keeps his promise to make her a star. She’s given steady work with leading roles, and as her career takes off, so does her relationship with Irving.
Throughout the novel, Laura wrestles with the divisions between her old and new lives. When Laura is nominated for an academy award, her parents and oldest sister Josephine travel from Wisconsin. She is overjoyed to see them, but is disappointed by the distance between her old and new lives.
Straub imbues her writing with surprising insights and wit. Though the novel is an intimate character portrait of Laura, that doesn’t mean the other characters are relegated to minor afterthoughts. Each of her family members is given their own unique side story, so that the novel isn’t just a biography of Laura’s life, but a portrait of an unlikely Hollywood family, with all of its joys and disappointments.
Straub is also masterful at subtle time shifts that sometimes span several years. As Laura ages, she is forced to confront the realities of growing old in Hollywood, shifting her attentions from her career to her family. The movie business also changes, as technology like 3-D are introduced, and Laura struggles to find meaningful roles.
Towards the end of the novel, Straub writes, “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.” This passage is exemplary of the keen insight that runs throughout the novel, and Straub’s writing reminds the reader how good literary fiction can precisely capture the human experience.