THERE’S SOMETHING ANTIQUE about Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures — and that’s meant as a compliment. Now that so much literary fiction seems to be set in either a dystopian future or an alternate —reality present, where postmodern fragmentation dominates and quirkier-than-thou narrators are de rigeur, it is refreshing to come upon a novel that has a classic quality. Sinking into this book is like settling down to watch a Criterion Collection print of a Greta Garbo film — it’s elegant, clean, lovely to spend time with, and refreshing in its simplicity of storytelling.
The tale of Laura Lamont seems taken straight from a pre-war talkie: Small town Midwestern girl arrives in Depression-era Hollywood and reinvents herself as a movie star. Having grown up in her parents’ claustrophobic summer theater in Wisconsin, in the shadow of a suicidal older sister and an emotionally distant mother, the ambitious 17-year-old Elsa Emerson makes use of the only escape hatch available to her: She marries another aspiring actor and catches a bus to Los Angeles. Cut to: Elsa Pitts, hugely pregnant with her second daughter, being discovered by Hollywood power-producer Irving Green. Soon the blonde locks are dyed raven, the post-partum body starved into submission, and corn-fed Elsa becomes sultry Laura Lamont. Jump ahead another decade and she has dumped her alcoholic husband for Green himself, papered the walls of their Beverly Hills mansion with damask silk, and accepted an Academy Award.
Like the paparazzi that lurk around the edges of Laura’s world, Straub stalks her protagonist across 50 years, capturing her life one impressionistic snapshot at a time. Laura’s career follows the classic rise-and-fall-of-the-ingenue trajectory: success and celebrity and glamour — a seductive world of bias-cut silk and champagne swilled on studio back lots—followed by disastrous failure, then pills, a suicide attempt, bankruptcy. All culminating, of course, in a comeback.
If this sounds like a plotline you’ve heard before, that’s because it is. And that, in part, is what makes this book so pleasurable: It’s a classic story, intelligently re-told. Straub adds enough twists to keep the narrative feeling fresh, as with the dimensional character of Irving Green. Rather than being the prototypical opportunistic Hollywood executive preying on the pretty young naif, Green emerges as a creative visionary and devoted husband and father, politically powerful but physically frail, and his marriage to Laura is a touching romance, daubed with tragedy.
Straub’s clean prose and sharp insights turn the rise and fall of an ingenue into a modern treatise on the work/career balance, a kind of feminist retelling of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Lamont is frustratingly passive, molded primarily by the men around her — a characterization that reads as Straub’s indictment of the era, in which the lives of women, on-screen and off, were shaped largely by the whims of men. Laura waits to be “loaned out like a moving truck,” and she compliantly “vanishes from public view” when her studio bosses find her pregnant body too unsightly. Unlike her comedienne friend Ginger — who leapfrogs from Lucille Ball-esque stardom to helming a movie studio — Laura is perhaps the opposite of a feminist; she’s a woman so accustomed to taking direction and playing the parts assigned to her that she can’t seem to define herself.
Her agency comes only inside her family, and with the daughters and son whom she adores. These children adore her back — no dysfunctional Mommie Dearest stories here — and so when she lets her career slide into oblivion in order to spend time with them, it feels less tragic than understandable. Unlike fickle audiences, critics, and directors, her children are a reliable pleasure, their daily disappointments surmountable: “There were socks missing and juice stains on the rug, and Laura loved it all.”
The multiple identities she inhabits — as Laura and Elsa, as mother and actress, as wife and daughter and widow and sexpot — are the conflicting selves that she navigates, unsure who she is supposed to be at any given moment. After a time, she begins to lose her sense of who she really is, relying instead on the roles she plays to give herself shape: “More than anything, Laura wanted to be given lines, to be given the outline of another human being to pour herself into.” She can’t witness her life except through the lens of the camera; the critical moments — death, birth — as scenes from a grand performance: “She saw herself through the twin lenses of the camera, at once upside-down and right-side up, the edges of the frame flickering as they moved past, quicker than the eye could see.”
When Laura finally, inevitably hits bottom and finds herself alone — living in a rented hotel room, working in a dress shop, stripped of her prescribed roles — she uses it as an opportunity to construct an identity of her own, at last. “It wasn’t that hard to play a part, once you understood the role,” she thinks. “Maybe she needed another name, another skin to slip inside. She was a new woman now.”
Since the inception of the motion picture, Hollywood has documented itself thoroughly and narcissistically; few angles remain that haven’t already been plundered by the studio machine. And at times Laura Lamont veers perilously close to the industry’s too-familiar tropes. But by keeping her portrait intimate and small — a life told in pictures, rather than an epic blockbuster — Straub ultimately delivers a novel that feels timeless.