A film star of Hollywood’s golden age goes mild, in Straub’s curiously bloodless debut.
Elsa Emerson, whose father owns and manages a Wisconsin summer stock playhouse, wasn’t always destined for stardom. Her older sister, Hildy, is the one with the glamour, presence and grace. But when Hildy hangs herself after being jilted by an actor, Elsa’s discovery of her sister’s body forever alters her worldview. Just how, is the novel’s task to reveal, and unfortunately it fails in that purpose. Elsa seems to drift into the various phases of her life. Having escaped Wisconsin by marrying fellow Hollywood-bound thespian Gordon, she gives birth to two daughters in quick succession and is consigned to housewifery while her husband achieves a modicum of success under contract to Gardner Brothers Studio. When Elsa meets Gardner mogul Irving Green, he sees her diva potential, renames her Laura Lamont and changes her Nordic blond looks to the persona of a sultry brunette. Gordon is quickly dispensed with, and she marries Irving, who provides security and an opulent house in Beverly Hills. By the time her son, Irving Junior, is born, Laura’s career again takes a back seat, this time to a more luxurious domesticity—now even her husband is touting her for matronly roles. Although Laura wins an Oscar early on, there is scant other evidence of her celebrity status since we see mostly her home life. Already a passive character, she becomes more so after Irving’s death. (He had a weak heart and was never robust.) She resorts to barbiturates to get her through her not-so-busy day. The tragedy of Irving’s death compounds the psychic wounds opened by Hildy’s suicide and more recently, her beloved father’s passing. Although Straub’s languid language convincingly conveys Laura/Elsa’s inability to cope, the reader at times wishes this screen star would go less gently into the good night of the aging female in Hollywood.
A life in pictures, mostly out of focus.