There's a pleasant familiarity to the plot of Emma Straub's debut novel, "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures," whose protagonist's life traverses the arc of a Hollywood biopic: early tragedy, rise to stardom, dalliance with addiction and finally, tentative happiness in old age. But here is something new: The superstar is nice. Laura Lamont loves her children, her husband, her friends and her maid. Laura Lamont craves her mother's approval. Laura Lamont isn't a fame-seeker; she's a nice Wisconsin girl who, when she wins an Oscar, can say only, "My parents are here." Straub is bold to make a superstar so darn sweet.
Laura may be the novel's center, but the cast of characters surrounding her are what transform Straub's text into a complete portrait of a place (Hollywood) and time (midcentury). Laura's first husband and the father of two of her children is a small-town dreamer who fails to find a place in the studio system of Los Angeles. Left behind when Laura catches the eye of a studio head, he slides into obscurity and eventually dies a vagrant addict. Laura's second husband, the head of Gardner Brothers Pictures, is significantly shorter and older than Laura -- and he's also the love of her life. A relationship as devoted as theirs ought to be boring, but this one isn't; it can feel almost revolutionary to read a literary novel so free of marital ennui. Then there are Laura's children: the plump and bullheaded Clara, the thin and cynical Florence, the hysterical Junior.
Family is paramount in Laura Lamont's world, but it would be a mistake to dismiss her story as chick lit. Straub is more ambitious than that. "Laura Lamont" is a novel of artistic development and one of deep domesticity that manages to do what Laura herself cannot -- reconcile these two spheres simultaneously. The book's only obvious sticking point is in the depiction of Harriet, Laura's long-term nanny and housekeeper (who happens to be black). Straub tries to plumb the complexities of this relationship, but she is limited to Laura's mostly unsophisticated point of view. Harriet can come across as saintly, without ambiguity of motive or feeling.
Straub, whose 2011 story collection, "Other People We Married," first appeared from the tiny indie publisher Five Chapters Books, seems on the verge of superstardom herself. Her collection was critically beloved and garnered her an enraptured fan base. "Laura Lamont" might be the most anticipated debut of the year. It's easy to understand the hullabaloo; Straub's style is clear and engaging, and her plot balances the glamour of the Hollywood Golden Age with trenchant thematic links to issues of contemporary working women. The result is a delightful, entertaining read with substance.
S.J. Culver is a writer living in California and Texas.