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.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Page count: 320
Publisher: Riverhead (Penguin)
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.
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.