* Lovers at the Chameleon Club by Francine Prose


All fiction demands that the reader suspend disbelief, for a spell, but with Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 I found myself firmly hanging on to my disbelief, for over 400 very long pages. The novel appears to be carefully concocted by a marketing team for maximum readership. Take a supposedly romantic location, Paris — and make sure to put the Eiffel Tower right on the cover, in case the book browsers would miss it. Choose a fashionable time period these days, World War II (not the misleading 1932 of the title). Also focus on the equally fashionable topic of gays and lesbians. Check. Sprinkle some ridiculous names (Lilly Rossignol, for instance!) Send the author, I imagine, on a romantic fact-finding trip to the romantic city — in the romantic spring, of course, which means that the lovely horse-chestnut trees will mysteriously bloom for New Year in the novel (oops!) Delegate the details to research assistants, with painful transcribing of trials and other historical events poking through here and there. Organize the book in an overwrought combination of diary, letters, and even a book-within-the-book, told by characters of different nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, and the sides they chose during the war. And don’t worry too much about editing. If a car that was given away is described as having been sold a hundred pages later, maybe no one will notice. If a driver’s license is spectacularly suspended but the owner drives all around France in the rest of the book, so be it.

I much, much preferred My New American Life, and its simple, unaffected story.

 

rtistically and intellectually adventurous, Prose presents a house-of-mirrors historical novel built around a famous photograph by Brassai of two women at a table in a Paris nightclub. The one wearing a tuxedo is athlete, race-car driver, and Nazi collaborator Violette Morris. So intriguing and disturbing is her story, Prose considered writing a biography, but instead she forged an electrifying union of fact and fiction by creating a circle of witnesses and chroniclers of varying degrees of reliability. Gabor, a Hungarian photographer enthralled by Paris after dark, photographs two weary lovers: Arlette, an opportunistic performer, and Lou Villars, a tux-clad athlete. The women are regulars at the Chameleon Club, a safe haven for lesbians, gays, cross-dressers, and others who must change their stripes to survive. We glean the many facets and repercussions of Lou’s “dramatic and terrible life” via Gabor’s surprisingly explicit letters to his parents, an unpublished biography, works by an American writer in Paris, and the memoirs of two rivals for Gabor’s love, a young teacher and a lonely baroness. In an intricately patterned, ever-morphing, lavishly well-informed plot spanning the French countryside and reaching to Berlin, Prose intensifies our depth perception of that time of epic aberration and mesmerizing evil as she portrays complex, besieged individuals struggling to become their true selves. A dark and glorious tour de force.

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