Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures
By Emma Straub
Early in Laura’s life, in the aftermath of a family tragedy, her father tells her firmly, “You’re an actress now.” Though he means she must feign strength despite feeling sad and vulnerable, Laura instead intuits the instruction as initiation.
Née Elsa Emerson, she’s a wholesome Wisconsin girl and the daughter of a playwright/theater director. Performance is the milieu in which she grows up—and, she decides, her birthright. In her teens, she leaves town with an actor, Gordon Pitts; conveniently sharing professional dreams, they marry and eagerly head to California to break into the film industry. Gordon’s career is on the ascent until a studio exec, Irving Green, narrows in on Elsa. He quickly expunges her name, her marriage, and her past; he rechristens her Laura Lamont and gets the studio behind her to make her a star. From then on, Elsa-cum-Laura “was always two people at once… They shared a body and a brain and a heart, conjoined twins linked in too many places to ever separate.”
Straub, a Brooklyn resident and local bookseller, effectively delves into the prismatic nature of selfhood. Laura’s divide between former and present selves is complex, although neither half is ever quite as magnetic as you’d hope. If stardom is associated with oversized passion and charm, the success of Laura Lamont doesn’t feel three-dimensional: she exhibits neither furious drive nor tireless zeal for her craft. Had Irving Green not plucked her from obscurity—namely the frustrated confines of domesticity and a loveless marriage—she undoubtedly would have remained tethered to her household rather than have become a household name. Over the years, as sadness overcomes her placid nature, it’s precisely this lack of ardor that makes her decline feel more wooden than it should.
Straub’s winks to old Hollywood—the omni-potence of the studio system, the playfully pre-dictable caper comedies they produce—revisit tropes that have shaped many typical onscreen narratives. Laura’s trajectory is well-worn, the fable almost prescriptive: naive small-town girl is attracted to the possibilities of Hollywood, succeeds there, but then falls victim to its fickleness. Laura’s fixation on her past helps balance out this familiarity, as the echoes of her family in her new life have a strong emotional resonance. Breaking away from where and how you grew up does not extricate your memories, and Straub effectively depicts the way family is inevitably instilled in you, new name or not.
Straub’s writing is pleasantly even-keeled throughout, never bowing to actorly histrionics. But for all the milestones—motherhood, two marriages, wealth, fame, mourning, loneliness, jealousy—Laura takes more than five decades (almost the entirety of the book) to come into her own as a self-governed, self-assured person. You wish that she had grown more significantly well before the credits rolled.