In the early summer of 1929, Elsa Emerson is the youngest of three sisters living in Door County, Wisconsin,where her parents own a theater. The plays are performed in the family's converted barn, and they are very popular, drawing crowds from nearby cities. John, Elsa's father, directs the plays and sometimes assumesthe starring role. Elsa adores being around the actors and immerses herself in the hubbub of the rehearsals and shows.
"Author Emma Straub skillfully introduces the down-to-earth woman behind the acclaimed actress, while evading every movie star stereotype.... [T]his is a very enjoyable read about a fascinating time in Hollywood's history, starring a character worth rooting for."
Plain-faced Josephine is Elsa's oldest sister, out of her teens and working in the local Tastee Custard Shack. The middle sister, the gorgeous Hildy --- emotional, moody, and prone to incapacitating headaches --- is 19. Elsa adores Hildy, who makes her younger sister her confidant. Hildy falls in love with a handsome young actor named Cliff, who pens love letters filled with intimate details about their lovemaking. Hildy doesn't hesitate to read these missives to her nine-year-old sister. When the romance goes south, less than two month later, Hildy takes to her bed, allowing Elsa to wait on her. Hildy pumps Elsa for information about Cliff, which puts Elsa in an uncomfortable situation; she can never admit to her beloved sister that she hasseen Cliff groping another actress. In spite of Hildy's obvious depression over Cliff, Elsa is stunned to hear her say, "I really thought that he was the one who was going to get me out of here."
Elsa cannot imagine anyone ever wanting to leave the perfection of Door County --- and that feeling is intensified when she begins acting in her father's plays. However, that opinion changes by the time Elsa is 17, even though she adores her starring roles. The family has absorbed a tragedy, Josephine has moved out to live with the first of a string of pretty young women, and a new actor named Gordon catches Elsa's eye. Gordon and Elsa have one strong goal in common: they both want to act in movies. Elsa's father drives the newlyweds to the bus station where they set off in the direction of Hollywood and their dreams.
Elsa and Gordon arrive in Los Angeles in the summer of 1938. They sleep on blankets on the floor of Gordon's friend's tiny apartment. By the time they have their own house, Elsa is pregnant. As a mother, Elsa spends most of her time walking up and down the streets talking to her daughter. While she likes trying out for parts, she never seems to be the perfect fit for any of them. While Gordon enjoys a few small parts, culminating in a contract with the Gardner Brothers studio, Elsa is expecting her second baby. Heavily pregnant, she attends a cast party at which she meets Irving Green, second in command at Gardner Brothers. This meeting leads to blonde Elsa's transformation into brunette glamour girl and movie star Laura Lamont. As "Laura," her career takes off, while her personal life undergoes a parallel renovation. As we follow Laura Lamont through her life into her 60s, Elsa/Laura struggles with the truth of her identity: Who is she, really? Elsa or Laura? The person she started out as --- or the one she has created?
Author Emma Straub skillfully introduces the down-to-earth woman behind the acclaimed actress, while evading every movie star stereotype. But readers may feel that they never truly know Laura; Straub's impersonal depiction reflects Laura's own quandary with identity. Nevertheless, this is a very enjoyable read about a fascinating time in Hollywood's history, starring a character worth rooting for.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on October 26, 2012
Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures