Of the two Emma Straub novels I have read, I like this one the best.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is a novel about understanding who we are, as we travel through the different stages of our lives. Laura Lamont, movie star, begins her life in Door County, Wyoming as Elsa Emerson the daughter of a theatre owner and manager. After an early family tragedy, Elsa embarks on a path that leads her slowly, but surely, to stardom during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
There is a great sadness that permeates this book and makes it rather beautiful. In life we are told that we cannot have all things at all times. Work, family and health must all take their place and we are led to believe that in juggling these three balls, one must be dropped every now and then. Laura is a flawed character, weak at times, strong at others. Her stardom sits uneasily with her and yet, provides the cornerstone of her life. She loves her family dearly, but at times is a poor wife, mother and daughter. In one wonderful scene in this book, Laura lies in bed with her husband and you realize that never, after many years of marriage, has she really discussed his family and upbringing with him. More implausibly and yet at the same time completely plausibly, she fails even then to take the opportunity. Such is Laura’s nature and doubtless Elsa’s interaction would have been different, but this is the life our protagonist has chosen. When we meet Laura’s mother in the book, we struggle to understand her behaviour towards her outrageously successful daughter and yet at the same time we understand it, due to past history and gain a keener insight into Laura herself.
There are good times and bad times in the Life of Laura Lamont and we most definitely take the journey with her. She is a character who pulls us out of ourselves, one who makes us examine our own relationships and drives us to think about how we would handle situations better, or at least differently. The novel finishes in the Spring of 1980, having begun in 1929, with the 10 year old Elsa and it truly feels like a lifetime, but in a good way. I find myself sad, as I look back over her life, not because she finishes the novel in an unhappy way, but because of its realism and because I understand that although I have not yet reached many of her landmarks, I will. I know that I must grow older and that, vanity aside, there will be many realizations ahead of me. One day we are 10 and the next day we are 60 and Straub reminds us that this is just the way life goes.
In The Vacationers Straub wrote of the relationships that bind us as individuals, whether it be with our friends or our family, how so much of our character is based on perception rather than reality. So it is with Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Here is a woman, more obviously than most, pretending to be someone she isn’t. Fashioned by her husband but loved beyond question, Laura is endlessly conflicted by her suppressed Elsa and her forgetfulness as to the responsibilities that part of her life brings. Laura is Elsa’s role in life and yet she plays her so absolutely that until later in life, Elsa is all but forgotten.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures has a beautiful poignancy that The Vacationers simply did not attain. I ended up buying it by chance, as it was on the discount shelf at my local bookshop and having enjoyed The Vacationers, I found myself thinking why not? In itself this pair of books is not enough for me to claim myself a Straub fan, but it will be enough to have me checking out anything else she might publish in the near future.