Monday, September 24, 2012

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures is almost a guilty pleasure (Riverhead Books)

Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, Natalie Wood, Liz Taylor…Who hasn’t watched stars of old Hollywood  and wondered what it was like to get discovered in some drugstore and become a legend?  Emma Straub’s new novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (Riverhead Books) creates an imaginary star, who’s real and immensely appealing.  While movie star biographies tend to be more tease than truth,  this fiction succeeds.  Though you know the story arc, Laura Lamont delivers the pleasure of a not always charmed Hollywood life.  And you don’t feel the vague necrophilia guilt about enjoying  a dead  star’s  glamorous life.

Emma Straub’s art is to make Laura’s interior life so visceral you almost feel you’re enmeshed in her luck and misfortunes, talent and delusions.  She’s a very specific character, though a familiar American archetype.  For within Laura Lamont lives Elsa Emerson, the Wisconsin farm girl with old-fashioned values.  She measures her Hollywood life against them with uncommon sense and a pang for what’s lost in her success.

It begins with Elsa as the lively nine- year old mascot of the actors who flock to her family’s summer theater.  She adores her beautiful dramatic older sister, Hildy, and her father, who encourages her interest in his theater.  Elsa dutifully helps her long-suffering mother and stoic sister, Josephine , with  their endless chores. That summer she also acts as go-between for Hildy and a handsome actor.  When Hildy dies tragically, Elsa’s childhood is over.  She vows to go to Hollywood for both of them.

She gets her chance in her teens, through marriage to Gordon, a pleasant-faced actor going to LA.  Both are excited to begin acting careers but the birth of her daughter ties her to their tiny apartment, while he gets a studio contract.  She figures her acting dreams are just that, until a studio party.  Elsa’s  huge with her second child, when she meets Irving Green, the charismatic studio head.  He dubs her Laura Lamont and tells her to lose thirty pounds and keep in touch.

Laura understands she will be a star while her husband remains a bit player.  But Elsa’s conscience bothers her, when she learns the studio makeover includes not just dying her blonde hair dark, but a divorce.  Yet she accepts it as part of grooming her image for success.  Laura is also realistic enough to admit Gordon, whom she never loved, has wanted to be the only star.  She’s aware of the irony of the publicity machine, which makes her not a divorced woman with two girls, but one who’s never been married.

She loves her job on the fantastical back lot, the free child care, dance classes, company cars and amazing costumes of silks and satins. But there’s also the pressure of dramatically stretching herself to fulfill Irving’s expectations.  Though Elsa likes fun, Laura is a serious brunette. She tackles dramatic roles; a nurse caught in a war, a nun dealing with her dead sister’s suitor, where Elsa yearns for a screwball comedy.

The novel perceptively uses the Laura/Elsa split to examine her movie star life.  When Laura’s relationship with Irving deepens, Elsa doesn’t allow her to become intimate, until Gordon has left the studio. She finds marriage to Irving is like coming home.  She’s reviewing scripts at night, helping with casting, reminiscent of her relationship with her father.  They live in a mansion with lots of rooms for her girls and her son with Irving.  Her housekeeper is a friend, who makes the balance of motherhood and movies feasible.  But so caught up is Laura in her life, it’s more than a decade before she sees her family again.  The clash of her two worlds occurs, when she’s nominated for an Academy Award.

Irving brings her family to Hollywood.  And Elsa sees her parents and sister, somehow surprised that time has not stood still.  Through her mother’s resentful eyes, she sees her glamorous home as gaudy, her clothes as immodest, her hair as artificial. Worst of all, is the disapproval her mother feels for her forgetting her origins and being “influenced by people,” meaning Irving, who’s a Jew.

Laura understands that it’s not just her mother’s prejudice against her public life of luxury but for a husband so different.  Josephine helps her also understand her mother’s bitterness about  her values, even the name she gave, have been rejected by her famous daughter.  In contrast, her father is joyful and proud when she wins the award and easily talks with Irwin about theater and film.

Her sister Josephine later supports her, after her father’s death, when Irving also dies.  Irving, the man who made her a star, was the sensitive kind husband who loved both aspects of her personality. With him, she had her ideal life.  Laura says goodbye completely to that life, when she discovers Irving did not put away much money.  With three children, she looks for work, though still grieving. To handle her nerves, she increases the dosage of the blue pills she takes, unaware of a growing dependency.  Then the ever resilient Laura/Elsa spends a few weeks in a hospital before she can reclaim her life.

No longer an in-demand movie star, she briefly works as a hostess on her friend’s TV comedy show but it’s no fit for serious Laura Lamont.  In the twilight of the big studios, she finds work with the studio costumer, whose shop provides special occasion gowns. The admirable Laura is glad of the paycheck and the company.  So Laura with Elsa’s down to earth values takes care of her family.  And when her son has a crisis,  Josephine again helps with a stunning revelation that links her son with the long ago mystery of Hildy’s death.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures ends with her returning to the her origins in the theater.  Laura/Elsa makes her Broadway debut, her children and friends in the audience. She regains her first love, the world of "the boards." Laura brings Elsa home. This novel is a high-brow “weepy” and I mean this as a compliment.  It’s a women’s story but there’s depth and the emotion is earned.  It’s not chick lit.  Straub’s created an icon as eternal as the young actor’s wish for fame and fortune. My own true confession. I got this in the publisher's Twitter giveaway, a contest for your favorite LA Story. I was intrigued enough to submit.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wilkie Collins' BASIL, written in 1852, is all about class

Wilkie Collins’ BASIL, written in 1852, is all about class
I read Wilkie Collins’ second novel, BASIL, not expecting a masterpiece like the THE WOMAN IN WHITE.  Yet I liked it for its comparative brevity, urgency, and shocks.  Considered a precursor to the detective story, there are telling clues only seen as important in retrospect by Basil, the narrator.  The second son of an aristocratic family whose lineage goes back to the Norman kings, at the beginning, Basil is exiled from his privileged life to the coast of Cornwall. Heartbroken with shattered nerves, Basil writes to save his life and fears it will be forfeit before he can finish. An almost demonic force threatens him and, though you think he may be crazy, you have to read on.  The story begins with his family, particularly his father, whose pride in his ancient heritage, the conviction that virtue is based on class, is pivotal to this mystery.  How Basil ruined himself is the subject of his narrative.

His brother Ralph is a typical eldest son, a popular boy good at sports, who patronizes Basil.  He becomes a flighty profligate, who courts women of bad morals and refuses any profession. This decadent fun-seeker, earns his father’s despair but not his censure. Basil, more introverted and less successful in school, considers himself the moral superior of his brother. He’s most attached to Clara,  his sister, and considers her an influence for peace and harmony, a person who helps others discover their higher purpose. She’s virtue personified, completely obedient to her father and devoted to her brothers.  Clara’s pale with light eyes, and her instincts are aesthetic, spiritual and true.

It’s no wonder Basil becomes quickly infatuated with the dark beauty of her opposite, a veiled woman he sees on a streetcar.  He’s so transfixed by Margaret’s physical perfection that he follows her home. And even decides to marry her, though she’s the daughter of a store keeper who sells fabrics. Somehow Basil assumes that eventually his father will come to feel as he does about Margaret.  And because he needs time to figure out how to reconcile his love with his family, he doesn’t object to the strange condition set by her father on the marriage.

Because of her young age, he’s to marry her but leave her at the church. For a year, he can visit her in the presence of a parent but not claim her as his wife.  Basil agrees and soon finds the invalid mother preferable to the boorish father, though he’s perplexed by her strange outbursts about her daughter. His secret romantic idyll is the light of his life, despite his estrangement from his family, until one day Mannion returns from a business trip. The father’s right hand man and Margaret’s former tutor, Mannion is strange and enigmatic, and a bit sinister.
Mannion appears a gentleman in a position beneath him.  And he’s so self-possessed, his face and manner never reveal emotion. He exudes a curious influence over the family, a kind of personal magnetism, that only the mother avoids. Mannion gives Basil no personal information until one night when he shelters in his flat during a storm. Oddly, he proposes to help Basil to manage Margaret’s father to his benefit. Though Mannion says he simply wants to help, a sudden lightening flash makes him look a demon. Basil believes the vision is a trick of the light.  And, at year’s end, he happily prepares to claim his bride. 

Though Margaret’s mother has given him hints that all is not well, he’s dismissed her, like the rest of the family. But Basil’s greatly dismayed to discover that on that special evening, Margaret’s gone out with Mannion to a party. He follows them to a shoddy hotel and learns their horrendous secret. Enraged with the ruin of his family and the loss of his happiness, he attacks Mannion and then collapses. Delirious with fever, Basil rants Margaret’s name. His sister realizes he's decimated by some loss and betrayal. Worse yet, Margaret’s father presses for his daughter’s rights, extolling her innocence. Basil is disowned, when his father learns he’s married the daughter of a common tradesman. Then Ralph, at Clara’s urging, salvages Basil’s mess.   

But Mannon, a madman with an ancient grudge, vows to pursue Basil. To protect his family, he flees for Cornwall.  There, in a rocky point of the coast, he finally is released from the man’s persecution. Basil’s ordeal marks him for life, but makes him a compassionate person. Collins’ book is rich in how it sends up the hypocrisies of class.

Despite melodrama, the "penny dreadful quality of the story. there is much humor in the aristocratic lord with the dissipated heir, the prideful linen draper, a “man of commerce,” whose daughter schemes for dresses and carriages. There’s  the illusions of privileged Basil about noble behavior and romantic love, while Margaret’s thinking if he really loved her he would not wait a year no matter what he promised. There’s also good deal of real pathos in the timorous invalid mother who sees the truth and is routinely disbelieved. And Mannion is an unforgettable villain, a man born of a gentleman with the “mark of the gallows.”  Love this book.