Dissecting a Debut: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Genre: Historical Fiction
Page count: 320
Publisher: Riverhead (Penguin)
ISBN: 9781594488450
Pub Date: 9/4/12
Agent: Jenni Ferrari-Adler
In Brief: Elsa never felt a particular urge to leave her family’s homegrown theater in Door County, Wisconsin in the 1930s, but she does feel the urge to act. So when an opportunity to arises to marry an actor on his way to LA, Elsa takes it. She slowly sheds Elsa’s life as she takes on new roles and a new name, Laura Lamont. But the old Elsa continues to surface with people from her past, and Laura is torn between who she was and who she has become for Hollywood.

In an early scene of this book, Elsa accompanies her husband to a party that his studio is throwing. While he hurries off to join his actor pals, Elsa is left alone — about 7 months pregnant and wishing she could look more like the actresses walking by — while she contemplates the crowd and her own dream of becoming part of it. This moment, right before the studio owner walks up to her to say he’ll make her a star named Laura Lamont, that quiet, lonely moment stands out to me. Because every star starts there, don’t they? Every actress at an LA party, every writer at writing conference or book party, they all start in a room of successful people, wondering how to get there. This book focuses on the getting there … and then perhaps more humbling, the after.

Fame is an interesting choice for a debut novel. I attended the release party a couple weeks ago at BookCourt, where the author Emma Straub has worked for several years. If Straub had ever had a moment like Elsa’s, where she is standing alone in a crowd of fabulous strangers, it came long before the release party. Editors, journalists and friends of Straub crammed the room, weaving through cliques of literary elite, holding champagne bottles above their heads. In the middle of it all, Straub was beaming with a pink puff of feathers dancing on her head as she signed copies of the book held out by excited readers. It was every author’s dream release party.

Of course even authors in the spotlight struggle beneath the surface. The sales have only started to take off, and there’s always the question of how many will come back in returns, of whether the author can’t quit that day job after all. And an internal struggle; was this the book the author actually wanted to write? The one she dreamed of publishing in adolescent musings of future accomplishments? If Straub was struggling with these questions, she was keeping them at bay for her readers, giving them insight to Laura Lamont’s struggles instead.

Laura Lamont plays the part of an actress well, and she uses this mirage to face her father’s death, her husband’s death, betrayals by her friends and family, the growing scrutiny of the industry as she ages. She begins to lose sight of who she actually is, and tapers that worry with anxiety pills. Straub carefully builds the crescendo of Laura’s loss of self, as she mires into depths of drug and denial.

The book is beautiful in its vintage scenery: Hollywood, the home theater on the Wisconsin farm, the dazzling mid-century homes, but those places all feel like a mirage. A reviewer on Goodreads said that Straub glossed over Hollywood, that Elsa would have — in reality — slept with an executive to become Laura Lamont. I agree that Straub only dusted over the controversies of the industry, she depicted Hollywood through the rose-colored glasses of a fond memory. However, she did tackle the controversies of self, something that can be set in any time period and ring true.

[SPOILER ALERT…]

Laura reaches her personal climax in a botched half-attempt at suicide, followed by a decision to take responsibility for those around her. She reconnects with her inner-Elsa in a stage performance, coming to an understanding, I think, that she and Elsa had always been the same self. It felt like a soothing harmonic tone at the end of the rising crescendo. I had been expecting a clash of cymbals. Laura Lamont’s fairy tale ending after all of her strife felt like a deeper lie to me than her rosy Hollywood.

[…END SPOILER ALERT]

Despite my disappointment in the ending, this book is a clear winner in terms of publishing potential. The vintage Hollywood details would catch the eye of any editor. The analysis of self — public vs. private, mother vs. actress, country girl vs. city star — is an obvious topic of discussion for reviews, book club gatherings, panels. On top of this, as a staffer at a prominent independent NYC bookstore, Straub has connections in publishing. Editors like to publish the work of people they know, not because they think it’s better or they want to keep their circles tight, but for the same reason that the average reader would buy a book written by someone from his hometown. It’s an interest in what’s familiar and a gesture of support.

Dissecting a Debut: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Genre: Adult Paranormal Romance
Page count: 592
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 9780670022410
Pub Date: 2/11/11
Agent: Sam Stoloff
In Brief: Diana Bishop, a witch who has shunned her magic to focus on her academic accomplishments as a historian, unlocks a hidden bewitched manuscript that all creatures — witches, vampires and demons — have been seeking. The manuscript’s secret is tied to her own magic and to her relationship with an ancient vampire, who protects her from the other creatures who start following her after she returns the manuscript. Diana has to learn how to use her magic and unravel the mystery of the manuscript.

The main thing that stood out to me about this book was that I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. Granted, it was a poor choice to experiment with an Audible edition. I kept wanting to read faster, but the narrator keeps up a nice slow and steady pace. With the length of A Discovery of Witches combined with the constant feeling of suspense it invokes on the reader, I spent an entire week carrying around my kindle and earbuds as I did the laundry, made dinner, and commuted back and forth to work.

Have you ever heard the comment from editors or agents that they know a manuscript is good when they miss their subway stop while reading it? That’s why this book got attention. There’s nothing particularly beautiful about the writing, and the characters feel like pieces of other characters we have read in other vampire, witch, demon, and other otherworldly stories. But from the moment Diana pulls out the bewitched manuscript, which she is holding in the very first sentence of the book, the reader is constantly aware that something is about to happen and must keep reading until it does (at which point, something else is about to happen).

Part of that is because Harkness uses two different genres of suspense. She deftly balances the suspense of unknown danger (a la Harry Potter series) and the suspense of romance (a la Fifty Shades). It’s hard to miss the similarities between Matthew, the ancient, wealthy vampire who is naturally protective and falling for Diana against the odds, and the Fifty Shades dom Christian with all his wealth and controlling habits. As sales have proven, this sort of passionate but dangerous romance catches a reader’s attention.

But even without the romance, the plot is captivating, and it follows a very clear line from rising action to climax and then denouement. Other witches are menacing, Diana’s magic is sparking, her aunts are worrying, and a vampire who hates witches is helping her. Diana starts to become more physically active, Matthew becomes more protective, witches send death threats. Diana escapes with Matthew only to be captured and tortured to the brink of death, wherein she discover’s a major piece of the secret.

Personally, I was wooed by the historical details, how Diana is related to Bridget Bishop, the first to die in the Salem Witch Trials, how Matthew has lived since 500 AD has known most historical figures since that time, how the manuscript is the otherworldly equivalent to Darwin’s Origin of Species. The historical details feel like bonus, but they’re what would make this book unique to me in a market flooded with vampire romances. They’re also what make this author stand out. Harkness is a historian with a doctorate from U.C. Davis. She has published a history book on alchemy (among others) and has won several awards for her research. Actually, aside from her character’s tenure at Yale, she sounds a little similar to Diana Bishop…although she clearly doesn’t avoid magic judging by this debut novel, which made it to No. 2 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

The second book in this series, Shadow of Night, released this summer, and I would argue that it is better. I definitely see improvement in the writing and I think Harkness was really in her element as a historian in the second book since it was set in 1591 rather than present day. Harkness’ work is an excellent example of a writer molding her academic or professional strengths to a commercial purpose.