Author: Francine Prose
Genre: historical fiction
Published: April 22 2014
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
A richly imagined and stunningly inventive literary masterpiece of love, art, and betrayal, set in Paris from the late 1920s into the dark years of World War II, that explores the genesis of evil, the unforeseen consequences of love, and the ultimate unreliability of storytelling itself
Emerging from the austerity and deprivation of the Great War, Paris in the 1920s shimmers with excitement, dissipation, and freedom. It is a place of intoxicating ambition, passion, art, and discontent, where louche jazz venues like the Chameleon Club draw expats, artists, libertines, and parvenus looking to indulge their true selves. It is at the Chameleon where the striking Lou Villars, an extraordinary athlete and scandalous cross-dressing lesbian, finds refuge among the club's loyal patrons, including rising Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, socialite and art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol; and caustic American writer Lionel Maine.
As the years pass, their fortunes-and the world itself-evolve. Lou falls desperately in love and finds success as a racecar driver. Gabor builds his reputation with startlingly vivid and imaginative photographs, including a haunting portrait of Lou and her lover, which will resonate through all their lives. As the exuberant 20s give way to the Depression of the 30s, Lou experiences another metamorphosis-sparked by tumultuous events-that will warp her earnest desire for love and approval into something far more sinister: collaboration with the Nazis.
Using the real life of Violette Morris as an inspiration, Francine Prose's latest novel is the story of an unlikely and awkward French athlete turned Nazi collaborator named Lou Villars. Though she is the center of the novel and referenced in the title, the novel is told through several different voices, none of them belonging to Villars herself. Based in fact and expanded through fiction, this is a highly unusual story; one that provides a new lens on pre-war Paris.
Through the framing devices (be they letters, memoirs, research papers, etc.) the various narrators of the story each explore various aspects of Paris in the 1930s and different sides of the story's main character and eventual antagonist, Lou. The athlete-turned-racecar-driver-turned-interrogator never expresses herself on the page but remains an unknowable and mysterious character right up to the end --- much like the real-life Violette. You don't really get to know Lou per se (despite detail and description), but Prose does a more than admirable job of evenly exploring her life and providing possible reasons for why Lou's personal evolution followed the path it did.
Paris is always a popular and romantic destination for war stories and love stories, but by choosing pre-World War II Paris, and using a lesbian character, Prose story further stands out. Not only does the gaiety and happiness expressed feel bittersweet, tempered by the knowledge of what is to come for the Gallic people in years to come, but Prose's eponymous Chameleon Club, home of misfits and wayward outcasts, feels doomed from the first appearance. From the moment the picture that gives the book its title is taken (based on Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle), everything begins to spiral out o control.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is an unusual story, told with care. Prose 's subject wasn't the most sympathetic of women, but her story was presented fairly and with obvious research and care.