Monday, September 10, 2012

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Staub

My father was a child of the great movie studios.  At the ripe old age of 4 or 5 he made the transition from Vaudeville to Fox Studio, and had several silent films under his belt as "Little Eli." He also was in a precursor to the Little Rascals, called the Sunshine Kids. One made it; one didn't. He used to talk about Jackie Coogan as his big rival. We have posters and pictures, and at least a copy of one film he was in. As a child, it fueled my imagination to think I could have been the daughter of a star.
My dad's the little brat dripping in Richard Dix's arms in the poster, after being pulled from the lake in Central Park.

But the depression had other plans for the life of Little Eli. He went on to become a physician of note, and though he was nominated for a Nobel Prize, it went instead to Jackie Coogan in the scientific world.  He always felt like a footnote in history.

Which brings me to this novel.  I had great hopes for a glimpse into the world of the studios in their glory years.  The classics of film still remain my favorites.  Give me Claudette Colbert, Katherine Hepburn, or Mirna Loy, or some equally slim, glamorous female pitted against the men of the day -- Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, or even Alan Ladd  (who my husband was named after)  black and white film moving on the reels, and the music of the big bands, and I'm a happy camper. Though a large portion of this book takes place in that world, I never really was transported there.  I'm not sure if it's because Emma Straub chose to make up a studio and stars entirely, with no basis in the real history or what. But the transport to that world never happened.

Elsa Emerson, enters stage right, youngest daughter in a Wisconsin family who run the summer theater in their small town. Elsa eventually wends her way to Hollywood (with a new husband she met in summer stock and later divorces), has several children and morphs into Laura Lamont, under the guidance of studio head Irving Green. The story follows Elsa/Laura's life over the next 50 years. What struck me most was how unhappy most of the people in Laura's life were. True, she did find her big love, but even that was cut short. The joy in life seemed to be lacking, especially as Laura moves from starlet to former star. I did like the way the author chose to end the book, with a new phase opening for Laura, that at least looked hopeful.

I'm not sure what I expected of this book -- maybe more of the Hollywood I knew existed at the time.  Everything was made up, without touching the actual Hollywood of those days.  Even the rival studio was made up. I wish Laura's world could have slipped into the golden age I know existed back then. I wish her family (birth, acquired, and studio) could have had more joy in it. As it was, I felt that I was looking at a faded picture of a place I knew and loved.

Rounding up to 3 stars because the story did keep me engaged, even though it did make me sad. Also, some of my beefs in the writing may have been due to this being an advanced reader edition of the book.

    Received via the kindness of LibraryThing and the publisher.

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