Wheee! This is my first Goodreads "First Reads" giveaway win!
CAUTION: The review below contains some mild spoilers.
August 12, 2012
Though I'm not quite halfway through the book, I have much to say, so I'll start my comments here. This is hard for me, because I really want to like this book, and I feel that Emma Straub is an author I want to encourage, but I have some issues with the novel so far.
For me, the book is a little slow to get going. I would have started the book with the second chapter, when Elsa/Laura arrives in Hollywood, with the preceding material either in a shorter introductory piece or presented as a flashback. The story wouldn't lose much if it came in on Elsa/Laura's relationship with her first husband mid-stream. Elsa/Laura's relationships in general are not particularly well drawn, and her relationship with her first husband seems like a slight plot device. More could be done with it, but if Gordon's role is merely to get her out of Wisconsin and father her first two children, the reader doesn't miss much if we meet him as they're arriving in California.
Few characters feel fleshed out, and dialogue is scant. One potentially interesting character, Josephine, says almost nothing and doesn't write letters to Laura after Laura moves to Hollywood. While this seems like a part of Josephine's character, it also feels like a hole--like maybe it's convenient to maintain her silence because the author isn't able to give her words.
I've always been interested in early Hollywood and the star/studio system, and over the years I've read biographies of Garbo, Louise Brooks, Bette Davis, and screenwriter Frances Marion. Each of these biographies reveals a lot about the industry from its beginnings through mid-century, and each illustrates how much hard work and personal sacrifice it took for these women to advance their careers. Many women in the film industry during this era did marry and have children, but--unless they were already major stars, and even sometimes if they were well established--in many cases those events marked the end of their careers. Few aspiring actresses arrived in Hollywood already married, and even fewer were able to launch their careers when they already had young children. That Laura's career starts out this way is very unusual, and I think it's enough of an oddity that more needs to be made of it. The reader is told that Laura loves acting, that it's who she is, but we don't really see it. Laura's success seems to fall into her lap; it doesn't seem like the result of years of single-minded effort. At one point Laura (or is it the author?) suggests that “Every actor and actress on the lot would have worked for free,” but established stars who devoted their lives to working in films had no intention of doing so for free (see Davis, Garbo, and others).
The fantasy of just somehow becoming a major star in Hollywood and living a glamorous life dominates the early part of the book. Descriptive passages are devoted to the trappings of this glamorous life--clothes, cars, houses.
This is not exactly a historical novel with fastidious attention to historical accuracy, and that's okay, but the number of things that feel historically questionable does grate after a while. Some examples: 1) For Gordon to complain about his first contract makes him (or perhaps the author?) seem naïve. To even get a first contract, even as a bit player, was a big deal. The terms of his contract sound like pretty standard studio fare for the time. An actor was under a studio’s control almost as sports stars today are under a team’s control—except perhaps moreso because of the demands a studio could make on an actor’s personal life choices. 2) At the Academy Awards banquet, Laura notes that her father has seen each of the six films she’s made. If Laura went under contract in 1939, it’s unlikely that she would have made only six films in nine years. If Laura receives special treatment because she’s married to a studio head, it’s worth making that point. That Laura wins the Oscar the first time she’s nominated, with the reader getting very little genuine evidence of Laura’s supposed acting abilities, is just another of the parts of this book that feels like pure Hollywood fantasy.
Some characters in the book echo real Hollywood figures. Irving Greene is not-so-loosely based on Irving Thalberg, one of the studio heads at MGM in the 20s and 30s. Like Thalberg, Greene is young and frail. Thalberg had heart problems and other health problems, and by the age of 21 he was a high-level executive at a major studio. Like Thalberg, Greene eschews screen credit. Thalberg partnered at MGM with Louis B. Mayer; Greene works with Louis Gardner. Like Greene, Thalberg married and to some degree shepherded the career of a successful actress—in Thalberg’s case, actress Norma Shearer. I haven’t reached this point in the book yet, but I have a strong suspicion that, like Thalberg, Greene will die fairly young, leaving a widow and children. [EDIT and SPOILER: Yep.]
The book gains some ground when Laura’s family finally comes to visit. When this happens, we're reminded that all is not fantasy, that there's a darker side to all this and perhaps some larger meaning. Still, her parents’ attitudes and motivations are too opaque, too lacking in nuance. There’s potential in this side of the story, and perhaps as the book progresses it will improve by placing more focus on and better developing these relationships.
I suspect Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures might work for some readers a little like Rules of Civility does in that many people will read it and enjoy it because of the world the characters inhabit. A good chunk of that enjoyment will rise out of readers' own existing ideas and fantasies about the world in which they believe the story is set. There's some value in that, but the book itself is flawed.
Of course, my overall opinion may still change in the next 100+ pages!
August 25, 2012
Wow. It's taken so much longer than it should have to read this book. I've got to be honest: It's not that it's slow-moving plot-wise, nor is it intellectually challenging. It just never captured my imagination. I don't feel much for any of these characters, despite what they may have gone through. Too much of the book feels cliché. There's a lot of fairly plain repetition about how much Laura misses her second husband, but she hooks up with him so quickly to begin with and there's so little shape and color to their relationship that's it hard to see what was so wonderful about it, or to care. Alas, there are even more characters in the second half of the book who are pretty obviously modeled after real Hollywood notables. That's not necessarily a problem, but in this book it just feels kind of lazy. In the second half of the book, the author uses characters along the lines of Lucille Ball (she may actually show up earlier--can't remember exactly), a Barbara Eden/Elizabeth Montgomery type, and even Edna straight out of The Incredibles (who, in that movie, is herself modeled after a real person, but in a much more effective way--besides, that's a cartoon). It's like the author doesn't have to describe these characters, because once we have a thumbnail, they're so familiar to us that we already know all about them--on the surface. Unfortunately, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures rarely delves much, with any degree of insight or subtlety, beneath that surface with respect to any characters or situations. The book doesn't add enough substance to the collage of cliches, gushing vague descriptions of the material stuff of Hollywood (and there's not even that much of that), references to real people, and telling-without-showing to give the story it's own value.