Elsa Emerson dreams of nothing but becoming a famous actress. When this beguiling novel opens, it is 1929 and she is a small girl, living in rural Wisconsin with her enterprising father, coldly reserved mother and two much elder sisters, Josephine and Hildy. The family runs the Cherry County Playhouse, temporary home every summer to touring companies who provide the tourists with Shakespeare and contemporary melodramas. Josephine, stolid and calm, has already abandoned the family business for the Tastee Custard Shack down the road, but Hildy, a temperamental and highly- strung teenager, is all set for romance with this summer’s leading man. The tragedy that results will colour Elsa’s ambitions and haunt her hopes and fears.
By the second chapter, Elsa has grown into an attractive young woman and is marrying the leading man herself, hell bent on getting to Los Angeles and making a name for herself. For a while, though, lost to motherhood and domesticity, it looks as if she is doomed to obscurity. But all this changes at a studio party, where she is plucked out of the crowd by the sickly but talented producer, Irving Green, who baptises her with a name for the silver screen – Laura Lamont – and offers to make her a star. Laura’s ascent to the heights of Hollywood is almost too good to be true, and Elsa has no idea what price she will have to pay for her thrilling new identity.
Emma Straub’s ambitious novel covers five decades in Elsa/Laura’s life and follows a classic trajectory for a Hollywood actress in the studio system of the 40s and 50s. Our heroine must deal with a shameful first husband, a family from whom she becomes increasingly estranged, barbiturate abuse, problems with her sensitive children, the tragedy of a dying career. Elsa/Laura might not always know who she is, or what she wants, but she struggles with admirable determination to keep what is right within her view, even when life overwhelms her with losses. Writing this summary out, it sounds like a potentially fluffy novel, something with embossed lettering on the cover and a pair of high heels. But this is actually a very literary work in the best sense of the word, beautifully written and profound on the psychodrama of becoming a new person for the appropriative eyes of the world whilst the old identity lurks awkwardly inside. Emma Straub (who is, yes, the daughter of Peter Straub) has a wonderful turn of phrase at times. For instance, the description of older sister Josephine’s expressionless face:
It was what their father called A Norwegian Face, which meant it had the look of a woman who had seen fifteen degrees below zero and still gone out to milk the cows.’
Or this description of the young male secretary that Laura hires in later life:
Jimmy had blond hair that crested in a short wave over his forehead, and always looked Laura in the eye when she talked. It was like having a Labrador who could use his thumbs.’
And the novel is exquisitely put together, with some fine set pieces and spot-on characters, like Laura’s friend from her early days in the studio, Ginger, who eventually gives up acting to move into producing. However, there is a sense that this is a well-written and interesting novel, spoiled by its wonderful premise. When I heard that this was a novel that charted the life of a Hollywood star from the early part of the 20th century I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I certainly expected something outrageously wonderful. Emma Staub has written the quintessential life of a woman from that place and time, and yet I wondered whether it would have been too cruel of her editor to say, fantastic, now tear this up and start over again, writing against the grain of all those conventions. Still, I found this a very enjoyable novel with much to admire, and I would certainly recommend it for, say, taking on holiday when you want something more rewarding than a beach read.