Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub (2012)

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub, 2012.

Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont in The Dueling Cavalier. What a great screen pair!
Emma Straub’s first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, tells the life story of a fictional female movie star from the 1940’s. Born Elsa Emerson in Wisconsin, she is eventually rechristened Laura Lamont by a studio executive. Laura goes on to marry that studio executive and win an Oscar. I was intrigued by Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures because I love old movies, and I thought the idea of a novel about a female movie star of that era would be very interesting. Unfortunately, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is a dull and rather lifeless read. 

I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters in the book. For me, the characters just seemed thinly drawn, and they never came to life. Even Laura/Elsa never seemed real to me. She doesn’t seem to have any drive or ambition of her own. She does not have the toughness that a woman would have needed at that time to be a successful film star. Laura’s studio executive husband, Irving Green, is such a perfect guy that he quickly becomes a bore.

A major plot point of the book is the suicide of Elsa’s older sister Hildy, which occurred when Elsa was nine years old. However, Straub makes the mistake of hammering this home relentlessly, as she keeps mentioning Hildy every three pages or so, as though we’ve completely forgotten who she was. Straub has severely underestimated the attention span of her readers.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that the world of Hollywood never came to life for me. I didn’t get the sense that Straub did much research for this book. She mentioned in an interview that one of her inspirations for the novel was when she read the obituary of the actress Jennifer Jones in 2009. Straub said that she had never heard of Jennifer Jones before she read her obituary. That’s exactly the problem with this book. Straub doesn’t know enough about the golden age of Hollywood to successfully take us there in the novel. I will admit that probably not a lot of people under the age of 50 would know who Jennifer Jones was, but if you’re a fan of the golden age of Hollywood, you should have at least heard of Jennifer Jones. Jones was a huge star in the 1940’s; she won an Oscar for 1943’s The Song of Bernadette, and was nominated for 5 Best Actress Oscars. There are numerous parallels between Jones and Laura Lamont, as their first marriages were to actors who had problems with alcohol. (Jones was married to Robert Walker, who died at age 32, and was most famous for his role in Strangers on a Train.) Jones’s second husband was movie producer David O. Selznick, mirroring Laura’s marriage to Irving Green. However, the more obvious model for Irving Green is producer Irving Thalberg, as they both died young of heart conditions. Also, both Thalberg and Green eschew screen credits. As Thalberg famously said, “Credit you give yourself is not worth having.” 

Laura completely falls apart after Irving dies, and unfortunately, those scenes take up most of the book. We know that Laura will encounter money problems because of the obvious foreshadowing as she thinks things like, “She was sure she had all the money she needed” numerous times. I don’t have a ton of sympathy for Laura. Yes, some shitty things have happened to her. That’s life, deal with it. Pick yourself up and move on, don’t just sit around moping about it. But Laura can only wallow in her misery, as Straub has not equipped her with any kind of drive or ambition. Since Laura doesn’t want to act, she just sits around the house with her children. 

None of Laura’s films ever seem real, and Straub only mentions about five or six movies that Laura made. After about 1950, Laura hardly makes any movies at all. I wonder if Straub’s lack of knowledge about Hollywood is the reason why Laura makes so few movies. Actors and actresses of the golden age usually made a ton of movies. Jennifer Jones is an anomaly because she only made 27 movies. Much more typical would be Lana Turner, who made more than 50 movies. Also, most of the supporting characters are easily spotted caricatures of famous actors. There’s Laura’s best friend Ginger, who goes on to become the star of a long-running TV show opposite her real-life husband, and who seems to be clearly modeled on Lucille Ball, and a handsome, closeted leading man named Robert Hunter, who is obviously meant to be Rock Hudson. 

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is really a novel about a woman and her family. Which is fine, but why on earth does Laura Lamont happen to be a movie star? She might as well be a lawyer, a housewife, a teacher, a nurse, or an astrophysicist for all that her job impacts the plot of the book.
My final beef with the book is Laura Lamont’s name. When the book was first published I read reviews of it and said to myself, “Doesn’t the author know that her character has almost the same name as another famous fictional movie star?” The inevitable connotation in my mind when I hear the name Laura Lamont is Lina Lamont, the ditzy silent movie actress with the terrible voice wonderfully played by Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. (“And I cayn’t stand’im.”) Why didn’t someone point this out to Straub? Why didn’t she change her character’s name to make it less similar? I shudder to think of the possibility that Straub was ignorant of Singin’ in the Rain and that by chance her character’s name just happened to be shared by another fictional movie actress. 

I was hoping that Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures would transport me back to the Hollywood’s golden age, but that didn’t happen.

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