• Print Length: 448 pages
• Publisher: Harper (April 22, 2014)
Paris in the 1920s. It is a city 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 denizens, including the rising photographer Gabor Tsenyi, the socialite and art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, and the caustic American writer Lionel Maine.
As the years pass, their fortunes—and the world itself—evolve. Lou falls in love and finds success as a race car driver. Gabor builds his reputation with vivid and imaginative photographs, including a haunting portrait of Lou and her lover, which will resonate through all their lives. As the exuberant twenties give way to darker times, Lou experiences another metamorphosis that will warp her earnest desire for love and approval into something far more sinister: collaboration with the Nazis.
Told in a kaleidoscope of voices, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 evokes this incandescent city with brio, humor, and intimacy. A brilliant work of fiction and a mesmerizing read, it is Francine Prose’s finest novel yet.
Buy. Read. Discuss.
Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer.
The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director’s Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in New York City.
As I was getting ready for the last day of Dallas Comic-Con on Sunday, I was listening to Weekend Edition on NPR, and this book – Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 was mentioned. Immediately, I grabbed my phone and tweeted, “Does anyone ELSE get excited when a book they’re already reading is mentioned by @NPR or @NPRbooks?” It was gratifying to learn that I am not the only one.
I had to leave the room before the show was over, so I didn’t get to hear the whole story, but that doesn’t matter. It was nice to know I was ahead of the curve on this book. At least, a little bit.
The Interwar period has been sort of haunting me lately, and Lovers… is just one of those pleasantly insistent ghosts. Told in many voices – a family historian, a young photographer, etc., it unfolds like a flower, or one of those paper “cootie catchers” we all made in childhood. There are stories within stories, and all involve rich characters, lush descriptions, and enough of the politics of the day to make you feel as if the Nazis are peering over your shoulder as you read.
I mean, seriously, Francine Prose nails it when it comes to “ominous.”
She also nails it when it comes to her vision of an underground club in Paris. What could have come off as a poor man’s La Cage aux Folles, instead, is so well described that I could smell the smoke from the cigarettes (I’m betting they were Gauloises) in their holders, and hear the soft, bubbling fizz of champagne and the gentle clinks and clicks of glassware and tableware. I could also envision the clothes, because we all know that the ambiguous cross-gender counterculture embraces the BEST couture in any age.
But it’s the story that’s important, and in telling Lou Villars’s story, Francine Prose shows us a spiral into evil, deception, and betrayal that manages to be gripping, sad, horrifying, and poignant all at once.
What would you do for love? What would you do for notoriety? For success? For money? For survival?
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 asks these questions, and if the answers aren’t always happy ones, at least they are finely crafted and brutally, brilliantly honest.
Goes well with champagne, dahling…or possibly absinthe.