Elsa Emerson leaves home, becomes a movie star named Laura Lamont, marries a studio executive, wins an Oscar, suffers the inevitable career decline, takes too many pills and winds up in the hospital, works in a dress shop, then gets a chance to make a comeback on Broadway.
We've heard this Hollywood tale an awful lot of times before, haven't we?
Yes and no. Emma Straub, who has published two well-received story collections, makes an interesting decision in her first novel. Her heroine is not a self-destructive, self-dramatizing diva; she's a down-to-earth, professional actress who has few pretensions about what she does. She just wants to work — in fact, she quite likes the dress shop. Despite her extraordinary profession, Elsa/Laura is a fairly ordinary woman, which makes her Hollywood odyssey both less glamorous and more connected to average human concerns.
Straub cogently sets the stage in the opening chapter about Elsa's youth. Her parents run a summer stock theater in Door County, Wis., and shortly after the novel opens in 1929, 9-year-old Elsa gets her first part and her first taste of applause, "the most beautiful song she had ever heard." The next day, she finds her 19-year-old sister hanging from a beam in the bedroom. Beautiful, high-strung Hildy's suicide gives Elsa a load of guilt she carries with her when she heads for Hollywood in 1938, planning "to do great things … enough for two whole lives."
Instead, Elsa has two babies in rapid succession with brand-new husband Gordon, whom she married mostly because they played opposite each other in Wisconsin and he was en route to Los Angeles. Gordon lands a modest contract with Gardner Brothers, and Elsa seems content to stay home until, while pregnant with her second child, she meets producer Irving Green at a studio party and admits that she thinks about acting "all the time."
Modeled on Irving Thalberg, Green suggests the screen name Laura Lamont and tells Elsa to call him once she's had the baby and lost 30 pounds. She enrolls in a postpartum dance class, where she strikes up a lifetime friendship with fellow aspiring actress Ginger Hedges, who seems clearly modeled on Lucille Ball. (Straub uses the familiar back stories of real-life Hollywood figures for several other characters as well, an efficient but slightly lazy strategy.) Elsa wants to be a star, but she never appears particularly driven or ambitious. What we do know — indeed, are told rather too many times — is that she thinks "it should have been Hildy here in Hollywood," while Elsa stayed home in Wisconsin.
Her mother agrees. Mary Emerson disapproves of Laura Lamont divorcing Gordon and marrying Irving, and she makes it clear when the Emersons visit to attend the Academy Awards that she feels Laura has abandoned her family. Straub spends more time on that conflict than Laura's Oscar win, an emphasis that will hold for the rest of the novel. Though she does a good job with the nuts and bolts of the movie business, her real concern is with more personal matters: the fraught bonds that link parent to child or sibling to sibling, the delicate negotiations of friendship, the multiple identities we assume as we struggle to figure out who we truly are.
This approach takes a while to pay off. Tensions simmer with Ginger, who has risen to TV stardom, and Irving dies prematurely, leaving his widow with three children to support, and a worsening barbiturate habit lands her face down in the swimming pool. It's all predictable — as are the relentless iterations of the gulf our heroine feels between Elsa the good Wisconsin girl and Laura the movie star, and Straub's deliberately low-key presentation precludes the emotional fireworks that enliven crasser Hollywood fiction.
Yet the accumulation of quiet moments is what ultimately makes "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures" so moving, despite its uneven execution. Straub slowly twines together carefully woven plot strands to depict Laura coming to terms with her past.
Instead of the flamboyant, larger-than-life drama queen we expect to find at the center of a Hollywood novel, Straub has given us something different and possibly better: a woman very much like the rest of us whose halting progress toward maturity differs only in its particulars, not its essence, from the journey taken by anyone who reaches middle age with some semblance of sanity.
Smith is a contributing editor for American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times