It seemed impossible to fit all the people she’d ever been into a single body…. (p.228)
It is the summer of 1929 when we meet Elsa Emerson, a resident of Door County, Wisconsin where her family houses and runs a theatre company. The youngest of three daughters, nine year old Elsa is desperately in love with the stage and jumps at every opportunity to be involved although it is her sister, Hilly, who assumes the beautiful starlet role. Beauty is as much a curse as it is a blessing and it is through Hilly that Straub first offers perspective on the roles we play: as women, as daughters and the ever evolving identity of our “self.” When the theatre’s leading man impregnates and then denies her, Hilly takes her own life leaving a gaping hole in the family unit and in young Elsa’s heart.
Looking for a way out, with a strong resolve to fulfill Hilly’s dreams as well as her own, Elsa marries aspiring actor, Gordon Pitts. Together they travel to Hollywood where Elsa is left to a traditional life of domesticity and motherhood while Gordon has moderate success as an actor. Pregnant with her second child and accompanying Gordon to a cast party, Elsa catches the eye of studio head Irving Green. Green quickly becomes her mentor, her confidant and, eventually, her second husband. Committed to making her a star, Elsa gives herself up to Green who, after a complete makeover, re-introduces her to the world as Laura Lamont.
Movie lovers will enjoy Straub’s journey into the golden era of film – a glamorous and innovative time in our nation’s collective consciousness. For the rest of the novel, we follow Laura’s rising star, as she becomes a successful, award-winning actress and the inevitable fall of that star in the fickle world that is Hollywood. Straub’s narrative, while eloquent and rich with detail, is as predictable as Hollywood itself. Laura’s success develops from her relationship to a powerful man and studio owner yet is sustained by her beauty – a “look” created by Green – and her ability to follow the unwritten rules of women in Hollywood: Be beautiful, Be agreeable, Be quiet. The women around her fit neatly into stereotypical boxes and, as she ages, she struggles to find work.
For most of her life, Laura lives in quiet conflict with the person she is on the outside and the girl from Door County who resides within her soul. It is these moments where the novel sings. Through the lens of Laura/Elsa, Straub invites us to consider the many roles we play in this life and the value each has for ourselves and for others.
Alicia’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Emma Straub
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (September 2012)
Note: ARC received from publisher for honest review