This is an absolutely lovely novel set in the gilded age of American moviemaking. While Elsa admires her older sister, Hildy
(“the most beautiful of the three Emerson sisters"), her memories evoke wistful feelings of her life growing up in rural Wisconsin. There’s no time limit on grief, yet Elsa is never quite able to come to terms with the terrible loss that precipitates her move to Los Angeles. Hildy appears to teach Elsa a life lesson, even when her older sister proves to be less of a gift and more a burden.
Distant mother Mary is a homemaker, and father John puts on plays at the local Cherry County playhouse. Elsa immerses herself in this world, where she imagines actors scooping her up “like a caravan full of Gypsies” and carrying her off into the night. Even though Elsa thinks that Door County is the most beautiful place on earth, she sees her future as clearly as she sees the water of Green Bay when she hitches herself to Gordon “from Florida” and travels to California, convinced that she’s “going to do enough for two whole lives.”
Straub weaves palpable emotion into her story of playing pretend as Elsa transforms from small-town girl into Laura Lamont, an exotic, sophisticated movie actress. Arriving at the bus station in Los Angeles
(“Hollywood is perhaps an idea like heaven”), Elsa can’t quite believe that she’s married to Gordon: “it seems like a big joke,” a fiction she is able to pull over her head “like an oversize sweater.” Events take a surprising turn when both sign up with Central Casting and Gordon lands a seven-year contract with Gardner Brothers Pictures. Elsa
is secretly delighted by the power of the studio to control their destinies.
This compelling woman of mixed personas spends her life coming to terms with
one question: What do we have to give up to be whom we yearn to be? Placed under the auspices of the Gardners, who run a factory that makes movie stars, Laura soon realizes that Louis Gardner and Irving Green’s word is law.
A single order from them is enough to reshape, delay or outright kill a film or a star in process. Bit by bit, parts of Laura eventually detach themselves, shaking off Elsa “like a discarded husk.” She becomes two people at once who share
mind and heart as Irving floods her entire body with something like “new blood,” World-weary yet wistful, Laura sees herself through the twin lenses of a camera, “at once upside down and right side up,” the edges of the flame flickering as they move past “quicker than the eye could see."
Of course, such a melodramatic story has its villains playing their parts well and driving the plot as Laura goes from the dizzying heights of stardom to a career on the wane. We, like Laura, are blinded by the golden sheen of Hollywood’s light and the way that every polished surface--the houses, the cars, and the expensive Oscar-ready dresses--glisten more brightly than the last. From being pregnant, overweight and miserable in a tiny house, Laura is proof that yes, fairy tales do indeed come true. Gordon’s less than noble actions become a powerful symbol for those who, for whatever reason, lack discipline.
His slow deterioration only adds to the bittersweet ambiance of the novel.
Beset by tragedy, Laura comes full circle in a series of contretemps that will never compare to the primal love she feels for Irving. While this richly satisfying new novel grapples with small-town limitations verses big-city sparkle, Straub so expertly layers Laura’s twisting and turning life that it would be curious to see how contemporary Hollywood might handle this story if it were ever made into a movie.