If you find it nearly impossible to escape the intimate details of the TomKat divorce or the latest Kardashian outing, you have the early days of the Hollywood studio system to thank — or curse. The era when actors and actresses were first manufactured, manipulated and marketed is explored in this smart and vivid debut novel from Emma Straub. In it, Tinseltown calls out to a naive young girl —but will she survive its seductive charms?
The story begins not with Laura but with the girl who would become her. Elsa Emerson is the youngest of three theatrical sisters who perform in their parents’ summer stock shows in Wisconsin’s cherry country in the 1920s. A scandalous family tragedy and a hasty marriage compel Elsa to try her luck in Hollywood, where a Svengali-like studio head changes her name, hair colour and marital status, transformed the wholesome rosy-cheeked farm girl into an Academy Award-winning actress.
Laura tackles cattle calls and desperate deals with exuberance and savvy, even if her two personas occasionally duke it out like rival divas. But Straub knows that the golden age of cinema wasn’t about tarnishing the souls of its wannabe stars: It’s not Laura’s rise to the top that’s the most gripping, but her steep fall. As the leading lady roles dry up, Laura ends up taking on parts that aren’t scripted for a happy life ending. Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures might be dressed up like a Hollywood story, but it’s also a cautionary meditation on the true price of ambition and success.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Emma Straub, $29.