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Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 began with a Brassai photograph I saw at a museum show in Washington. I was familiar with the photo, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932”: a portrait of two women sitting at a table in a bar, one in a sparkly evening gown, the other in drag, with short hair and a tuxedo. But the wall text said something I hadn’t known, which was that the woman in the tuxedo, a professional athlete named Violette Morris, had worked for the Gestapo during the German occupation of Paris and later been assassinated by the French Resistance.
A little research turned up an even more interesting story. Morris was an Olympic hopeful and a professional auto racer. When her license to compete as an athlete was revoked by the French government, as punishment for being a public cross-dresser, Hitler somehow got wind of it, and invited Morris to be his special guest at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. By the time she got back to France, she was not only spying for the Germans, but she was the person who told them where the Maginot Line ended: where they could breach the French defenses. During the Occupation, she did indeed work for the Nazis, and was killed by the Resistance in 1944.
It was such an amazing story that I considered writing it as nonfiction, but I soon decided that I would have more liberty, and that I and my readers would have a lot more fun, if I wrote it as a novel. As the process went on, the novel became less linear, and about all sorts of things besides Violette Morris (in the novel named Lou Villars). Moving back twenty years from the date of her death, I found myself writing about Paris in the ‘20s, and using several different voices. Gabor, the photographer, is writing letters home to his parents in Hungary, as did Brassai. An American, Lionel Maine, is writing a novel/memoir about expatriate life, a little like Henry Miller. There are several other faux-memoirs, some “published,” some not, one by a baroness, one by Gabor’s wife. And Lou’s story comes to us in the form of a life history by her “biographer,” Nathalie Dunois, a teacher at a regional high school, who cannot seem to separate her own life and her own problems from her subject’s. Hitler and Picasso make cameo appearances.
Each person has his or her version of the truth about the bright and glorious days of Paris in the ‘20s, the theatrical spectacle and intrigue of Berlin in the ‘30s, and the darker era that began when those two worlds came together. As always, the novel ended in a very different place from where it began. I started off writing about a woman in a tuxedo and wound up writing about art, love, evil, money, auto racing, espionage, insomnia, seduction and betrayal—and the way that history changes, depending on who tells it.
*Starred Review* Artistically 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. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Destined to be a breakout book, Prose’s novel will be promoted with an eight-city author tour, a major media campaign, and library and book-club outreach. --Donna SeamanSee all Editorial Reviews
An interesting moment in time with an interpretation that surprises often.Published 11 days ago by Lester A. Smeal
Quit half way through. Couldn't find even one character that I cared about.Published 21 days ago by Lois Gwirtz
Great story line... you need to get past the first fifty pages to get into the pattern of switching characters.Published 26 days ago by Rita A.
Surprising for me i did not realize this is an historical fiction book. As i read this extremely interesting book about the infamous Cameleon Club [not actual name] that existed in... Read morePublished 1 month ago by westbarb14
Told in a series of stories from first person POV's it was a page turner...the end however was a bit of an anti-climax as you sort of knew what was going to happen.... Read morePublished 1 month ago by dbk636466
Succulent slices of Paris life in the 20s and 30s with characters that are unforgettable give this novel vitality and life. The main character is a fantastic mix of good and evil. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Grace Carswell
As you read this book you have to remind yourself it's fiction the book is based on real events and it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Melanie R.
This is a wonderful read. Even though it is a novel, it reads like very colorful history of the occupation of Paris in the Second World War. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Lisa Haynes