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Onyx reviews: Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Elsa Emerson grew up around the theater. However, her early experiences weren't with Broadway or any other famous venue. Her parents ran a summer theater out of their barn in Door County, Wisconsin. Elsa was the youngest of three girls, but it was her sister Hildy who had acting in her blood. In the summer of 1929, Hildy's affair with an itinerant player came to a tragic end and it was Elsa who boarded a bus bound for Hollywood nine years later, where her new husband hoped to find fame and fortune.

Hollywood is thriving despite the depression. Though they get off to a rocky start, Elsa and her husband make their way in Los Angeles. Gordon gets a few parts and is offered a contract that means they will be able to pay the bills. However, at a Christmas party, the studio head identifies Elsa—who is pregnant with their second child—as the real star in the family. Irving Green gives her two things: a new name and a promise to work with her once she's back in shape after she gives birth. She is reinvented and one might be tempted to think of Marilyn Monroe, but Elsa has more going for her than simple good looks and her career trajectory is far different than that of the former Norma Jean Baker.

The book follows the newly dubbed Laura Lamont over the next four decades, through her various rises and falls. She finds the love of her life but her happiness is tainted by memories of what happened to her sister. Her mother doesn't approve of her lifestyle or of her choice in men, so she is estranged from her family for long periods. When her parents do come to visit, they aren't sure what to call her.

Laura finds the trappings of her chosen life difficult. Fame complicates simple things. She turns the raising of her children mostly over to their housekeeper. It's a glamorous lifestyle, but at heart Laura is still Elsa, a country girl with a simple upbringing. Fame doesn't go to her head, but she struggles to rationalize the differences between her two identities. 

Though some of the characters seem drawn from real life (one young actress resembles Lucille Ball, for example), and Gardner Brothers studios brings MGM to mind, this isn't a roman clef. Straub isn't exposing the hidden secrets of Hollywood personalities, even though she does use her first book to paint a convincing portrait of what it must have been like to be part of its Golden Age.

The book doesn't have an identifiable villain, nor does Laura have an over-arching goal. A high school English class might call this an instance of man against himself, as the greatest conflict is Laura's internal struggle and the guilt she feels that she's living the life that should have been Hildy's. 

It's hard to feel too bad for Laura's Beverly Hills life of privilege. However, one gets the sense that she never quite finds what she's looking for, and often this is because she never looks very hard. She is curiously incurious about her friends—even about her second husband's past. Life carries her along from one experience to the next. She's a rudderless ship, especially after she is widowed.

Fame is fleeting and Laura was never designed to live the life of a has-been. She might have been happier back home in Wisconsin with the summer stock troupes than immersed in the cauldron of Hollywood. In the end, the novel is exactly what its title promises: an engaging and discerning look at one woman's life.

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