As I got deeper into Emma Straub's debut novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, it occurred to me - and I had pointed this out on Twitter at the time - that this isn't so much a story of the rise and fall of a classic Hollywood actress so much as it is a story about a career woman, trying to balance work with her personal life. The glamor of the Golden Age of Hollywood is certainly felt within the story, but one should not go into it expecting a paean to the silver screen - which is not necessarily a bad thing.
The closest comparison between Laura and a real Golden Age actress would probably be Jennifer Jones: Oscar-winning actress with an alliterative stage name, married to a studio mogul who carefully molded her image and career, born to parents who operated a theatrical troupe, and who had a prior marriage to a fellow actor. Most of the actors, directors and studios in the book are fictitious, and there's very little in the way of interaction with real ones beyond passing references. (There is one character who appears to be a stand-in for Lucille Ball.)
The heart of the story concerns Laura's emotional life. She becomes a movie star, but her success is tinted with feelings of guilt and regret because of the premature death of one of her older sisters, who wanted to be a star much more than Laura did. Indeed, she's never far away from Laura's thoughts throughout the book. Then there's her conservative mother, who disapproves of Laura's career. There's a lot involving Laura raising her children while trying to sustain her film career, as well as trying to adjust to the changing times in cinema.
Straub's style is blessedly straightforward and doesn't rely on any off-putting literary gimmicks. There are some story elements that don't go as far as I would've liked; for instance, the conflict with her mother. Some don't get addressed at all; Laura becomes a pill-popper, and I kept expecting something to come of that, but her addiction doesn't carry much in the way of consequences.
Still, Laura is a sympathetic character, and her story manages to veer from the familiar path of A Star is Born in deeper, more introspective ways. For example, while she doesn't suffer an identity crisis, a clear distinction is made between the woman she starts out as and the woman she becomes as a result of her name change. It's a consistent theme throughout the book, and it speaks to the changes she goes through in becoming a movie star.
Like I said, Laura Lamont should not be read in expectation of an homage to all the things we love and admire about classic Hollywood, but rather a tale of the inner life of a woman in pursuit of success and what that success does to her.
[Full disclosure: I bought this book for myself; it's not a review copy.]