When Elsa Emerson, the youngest of three sisters and mascot of her family's Cherry County Playhouse in Door County, Wis., is beckoned to the stage by her director father to toss paper petals out of a little basket, the audience greets her with wild applause. The transformation of the little blonde girl into a sultry brunette Academy-Award-winning Hollywood movie star renamed Laura Lamont provides the structure of Emma Straub's debut novel, "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures."
The inspiration for the novel came from the life of Jennifer Jones, the star of more than 20 films during Hollywood's golden years. Straub, an avid movie-goer, had never seen one of Jones' films, but the actress' 2009 obituary caught her eye. Jones would have been a contemporary of Elsa, turned Laura, but Straub was determined not to write a roman à clef, a thinly veiled pale imitation of Jones' story. Instead, she imagined the full arc of Laura Lamont's life, not just her years in front of the camera or yearning for it after her time had passed.
To get a feel for Hollywood, Straub and her husband did a house-swap where she spent a month doing research in the Margaret Herrick Library, operated by the Academy of Motion Pictures. While Hollywood may heighten the demands on women, the novel's resonance resides in its ambition to speak to the full sweep of a woman's life, and the challenge to balance ambition, children, love and friendship in a world that can be as arbitrary as it is wonderful.
Straub, at 32, seems to be doing a pretty good job balancing life's challenges. The author of an acclaimed short story collection, "Other People We Married," is married and lives in Brooklyn, where she also works at BookCourt, a wonderful bookstore. Born and raised in New York City, Straub says that she is more of an Elsa than a Laura, and not just because she's blonde.
"Laura was very brave and struck out on her own and went far away in pursuit of her dreams," Straub reflects. "But my dream has always been to be a novelist, and there's no better place to be a novelist than New York City, at least when you're starting out."
The daughter of famous horror writer Peter Straub, Emma is close to both her parents, who live on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "I talk to my parents on the telephone for an hour a day," laughs Straub, "sort of strange and adorable simultaneously."
The Straub family is rooted in Wisconsin, and Emma Straub calls Door County "one of the most beautiful places I have ever been." But unlike Elsa Emerson, who leaves the Midwest to become a movie star, Straub headed there for her training as a writer. She graduated from Ohio's Oberlin College, recently put on the cultural map by recent alum Lena Dunham.
"We haven't met, but we've corresponded, and she's so generous and lovely," notes Straub. "I'm PRO LENA DUNHAM."
For her MFA, Straub studied with the talented Lorrie Moore at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Straub brilliantly captures the allure of Hollywood, and one wonders if she has ever fallen to its temptations. "I am an actual movie star!" she says with a laugh. That was her — visible for one second — in Noah Baumbach's critically acclaimed 2005 film, "The Squid and the Whale" as an extra.
Elizabeth Taylor is the Tribune's literary editor.
Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures
By Emma Straub, Riverhead Books, 306 pages, $26.95Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times