*I received this book from the publisher Riverhead Books in exchange for an honest review.
Elsa Emerson grows up walking the boards at her family’s playhouse in Door County, Wisconsin in the 20s. Her childhood is full of costumes, actors and actresses running through dappled sunlight, and nights under the stars watching magic on stage until her older sister gets involved with one of the actors and has her heart broken. Devastated, Hildy kills herself, and the playhouse and Elsa’s life change forever. Determined to recapture some of the pleasure of those heady nights on stage, Elsa marries and moves to L.A., where a movie exec discovers her, has her dye her hair dark, and renames her Laura Lamont.
In this golden era of Hollywood, stars are made, not born. The studios craft very careful images of their stars, grooming them to their specifications based on the types of films they shoot. And Laura is made, driven not only by her desire to act but also a sense that she should since Hildy cannot. After she outgrows her first marriage, she marries Irving Green, the studio exec who first discovered her, and the novel is the story of her life, the ups and downs of a film career, and the reality of raising a family in the most unrealistic place.
If you know nothing else about me, you know I love classic film. And not in the “I collect Audrey Hepburn posters, but I’ve never seen these films” kind of way. [And yes, that was me being snooty. ;)] It isn’t the films alone, however, that I love. The studios had such character and personality, that you can definitely tell an MGM film from a Warner Bros. film. Ownership to that extreme also engendered pride in making films that you just don’t feel today – at least not in the same vein.
Irving is part of that magic, and when he turns his spotlight on Laura, it’s a dream. When she marries him, Laura says she “decided it was reasonable to think of it as her first wedding, because the previous one had been someone else….There were an endless number of things that Laura was going to do that Elsa never would, and she couldn’t wait to find out what they were.” This disconnect between Elsa/Laura continues throughout the novel, and it’s something she, at times, seems aware of but mostly ignores. There’s no depth to her, so when her world is turned upside down a couple of times, she loses who she is and isn’t quite sure how to regain either of her selves.
It was when the plot began heading for the typical Hollywood story – actress past her prime, troubles with pills, selfishness – that my affection began to wane. Particularly because Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures uses one or two familiar names, but for the most part, all the actors and studio names are fake. I can understand there were possible legal reasons for this, but I’ve read plenty of books that use real names and brands. And, if you do choose to go the “anonymous” route, then I wouldn’t recommend giving the actors specific identifying marks. It’s confusing and annoying. There were moments when I was more caught up inwhothe real actors were than in Laura herself.
Ultimately, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is an engaging read and a promising debut. It may not be for the die-hard classic film fan, but it is a great story of life, love, and identity, perfectly summed up in this line: “No one could tell Laura Lamont what to do; she was too old for that. Let them come and look at her, let them try to swallow her up into their old-fashioned story lines. Laura was going to sew herself into the shape of happiness all on her own.”
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