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Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel
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52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Early on in Francine Prose's richly imagined and intricately constructed tour de force, Yvonne - the proprietress of the Parisian Chameleon Club -tells a story about her pet lizard, Darius. "One night I was working out front. My friend, a German admiral whose name you would know, let himself into my office and put my darling Darius on my paisley shawl. He died, exhausted by the strain of turning all those colors."

History - and the people who act on its stage - is itself a chameleon, subject to various hues and different interpretations, depending on who's doing the telling. Francine Prose seems less interested in exploring "what is the truth" and more intrigued with the question, "Is there truth?"

The title derives from a photograph that defined the career of the fictional photographer, Gabor Tsenyl: two female lovers lean towards each other at the Chameleon Club table. His is one of five narratives that punctuate the novel. The showcase narrative - written as a biography by the grand-niece of one of the participants - focuses on Lou Villars, a one-time Olympic hopeful and scandalous cross-dresser who crosses over to the dark side and becomes a Nazi collaborator. The other four narratives are composed of devoted letters from Gabor to his parents; the unpublished memoirs of Suzanne, his wife; excerpts from a book by the libertine expatriate writer Lionel Maine; and finally, the memoirs of a benefactor of the arts, Baroness Lily de Rossignol. Each narrative plays off the others and provides subtle suggestions that the other narratives may not be entirely accurate.

What is the truth of this intoxicating time, when artists of all kinds gravitated to the Paris scene and when war with Germany was an increasingly sober possibility? Francine Prose suggests that the truth is fluid. Reportedly, Lou Villars was inspired by a real person named Violette Morris. There are more than a few hints of Peggy Guggenheim in Lily de Rossignol and Lionel Maine bears a resemblance to Henry Miller. How much is fact and how much is fiction?

And once the reader gets over that hurdle, how much of what is revealed by the fictional characters is distorted through their own mind-lens? How much of what they report is truth and how much is perception? Can anyone ever know the real person who lurks behind the off-stage mask? As Francine Prose writes, "The self who touches and is touched in the dark ,between the sheets, is not the same self who gets up in the morning and goes out to buy coffee and croissants.

I've said little about plot and that's deliberate: the unfolding of the plot is for each reader to discover for himself or herself. I will say this: the writing is exquisite and in my opinion, elevates an already talented contemporary writer to entirely new levels. The ending is breathtaking in its audacity. The setting - Paris in the late 1920s - is mesmerizing. The themes touch on universal matters: getting in touch with our authentic selves, crossing society-imposed gender barriers, understanding the fluidness of morality, searching for love and approval in dangerous places, making sacrifices for art, and discovering that history is not immutable, but changes depending on the individual who relates it.

I read Lovers in the Chameleon Club directly after another very different book: Helen Oyeyemi's Boy Snow Bird. Interestingly, both tackle the meaning of truth from very different yet unique angles. This is a stunning accomplishment and I enthusiastically recommend it.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I think that the author must have enlisted her most faithful friends to write the blurbs on the back of the dust jacket, telling prospective readers all the things that the author no doubt wanted her book to be. But it is none of those things--not vivid, not spellbinding, not daring, etc. etc.

It's not at all like Rashomon, which tells us the same story from different points of view and with startlingly different details and endings. The various tellers of this tale are all part of the same dull narrative; there is here no "shimmering library of possible truths and forking pathways." Nobody's narrative conflicts in any important way with anyone else's except for Suzanne's denunciation of Lou's biographer in the final chapters. No, the multiple points of view simply provide the author with an easy way to tell the story, much easier than constructing a complex novel with a single omniscient narrative voice. No glimmer of Tolstoy here. And the multiple points of view provide excuses for everything that is lame or lacking in the novel. For example, Gabor's letters home serve mainly to feed information to the reader. Isn't it convenient that he has parents to whom he can write even the most intimate details of his life? The main failing though is the writer's inability to make her main character interesting in the least. She even invents a bad writer with her own personal problems to handle that very important part of the book. So we get, for instance, that interminable, boring, horribly badly-written chapter when Lou meets Hitler and is immediately in total awe of him and ready to do his every bidding. No explanation, no analysis, no reason behind any of it.

I could go on and on, but the book isn't worth it. I made myself finish the it, but I also promised myself that I would never again push myself to finish a book that is so obviously wasting my precious time.

Just a few minor questions before I continue the quest for something worth reading: Why does Suzanne want her memoirs destroyed after her death? Obviously she wants others to read them, or why write them at all? Why does Ducky have to sing his coded messages? Why not just find an occasion to talk to the person he wants to communicate with? And finally, who is the fictional editor of all these excerpts? Who supposedly collected and put all these sections of others' books together in this way? If you're going to attempt to create a fictional universe, there has to be a fictional force behind it all, seems to me. (Like Nabokov, just for instance, in his masterpieces. And Ms. Prose has the gall to use as epigram a quotation of Nabokov's!).

Oh, Nabokov! Oh, Humanity!
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This thoroughly entertaining novel carries the usual disclaimer: "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental." A disingenuous disclaimer in this case, since the author admits that her source is a famous photograph, "Lesbian Couple at the Monocle, 1932." Unfortunately, no doubt for copyright reasons, this is not reproduced in Prose's book, which instead has a garish cover that does the text no justice; this book is not neon but noir. Do look up the picture on the Internet.* You will see two figures sitting side by side at a disheveled cafe table; one is a birdlike woman, the other a slightly pudgy man. Both are staring into private spaces of their own; the male figure seems distracted, a little sad, even tormented; what IS going on in his mind? Francine Prose asked herself the same question, and the result is this novel, a stirring and at times even moving blend of imagination and fact.

As the title of the photograph reveals, of course, the "man" is in fact a woman in male clothes. The stylishness of her suit, tie, and silk handkerchief contrasts with the rumpled collar and her slightly lost air; this is a woman who is comfortable nowhere, certainly not in conventional female roles, but not entirely in male ones either. Prose discovered that the original was a Frenchwoman named Violette Morris, trained to phenomenal strength as an athlete in many sports, including discus, soccer, and water polo, and later achieving fame as a race-car driver. But as a national role-model, her unacceptable bisexual lifestyle got her banned from participation in the 1928 Olympics, causing her to withdraw from sport. Later still, she was recruited as a spy for the Germans and ultimately worked for the Gestapo as an interrogator.

Francine Prose says she considered writing her story as non-fiction, but eventually decided on a novel. So Violette becomes Lou Villars, whose life story follows the original pretty closely. But the facts are not the point: in the first few pages, we are told the equivalent to virtually everything I have said about Violette Morris above. Prose's purpose is to ask the searching questions: how could a national heroine turn into torturer and traitor, and what did it feel like to live inside the hyperdeveloped body and tormented mind of Violette/Lou? To do this, she interweaves many voices: drafts of a biography written sixty years later, the autobiography of a French Baroness who was for a while Lou's patron, excerpts from the writings of an expatriate American writer, the letters of the Hungarian photographer who took the photo, and the memoirs of his wife, whose path crossed Lou's on several memorable occasions. Not all the voices are equally successful; the American writer seems almost peripheral to the plot and his writing has nothing of the spice of Henry Miller, his presumed model. But together they make a finely nuanced portrait not only of the major characters involved, but also of the decadent period between the wars that nursed the ensuing tragedy.

[Ignore, incidentally, the references to RASHOMON you will see on the book cover. Although these various accounts differ in perspective and minor detail, this only gives greater depth to the whole, and a softer-edged sympathy. There is none of the outright contradiction you get in the Kurosawa film masterpiece, although a chapter near the very end of the book will introduce a surprising new twist.]

But Lou Villars, while interesting, was not the main attraction of the book for me. No, it was the artist behind the camera of the original photograph, the great Romanian photographer Brassaï. Apart from changing his name to Gabor Tsenyi and his nationality to Hungarian, Prose adheres much more closely to his real biography than she does with any of her other characters, including his fondness for photographing the Paris of the shadows and his later friendship with Picasso. His was the viewpoint that I trusted most, because in essence it still exists. Rely on the author's prose to provide insight into the torments simmering behind the man-woman in the famous photo, but keep a gallery of the real Brassaï photographs open as you read, as the perfect visual background to this intriguing novel.

*See first note.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This is a lumbering, broken book that occasionally shines. It is a record of the author's half-successful attempt to hammer brittle history into something that suits her narrative desires.

The main character, if we can call her that, is Lou Villars, a cross-dressing lesbian who races cars and then, later, somehow falls into the arms of the Nazis and tortures people. I am not spoiling the plot by saying this. The reader is constantly, proddingly reminded throughout the book of how horrible little Lou is going to turn out to be, and of what a shame it is that Lou will end up so evil. By the time we finally do see her burning people with a cigarette lighter, we are not surprised.

Overall, we are given little to care about or identify with in Lou, save perhaps a dim self-loathing. Surely a writer as practiced as Prose must know that the worst of villains, to become truly interesting, must be a whole lot like us. Failing to create a character who blends good and evil enough to pull us into her orbit, Prose settles for having a few of her half-dozen narrators wonder out loud about how much humanity exists in Lou.

Unfortunately, Lou reads as a lesbian sketched by a straight person: a square-shouldered caricature who is often seen running to and fro and fixing cars, but never comes close enough to share a view with the reader. Not even the sex scenes give a compelling account of the vicious drive that must, we think, be behind someone who does what Lou does. Prose tells, but shows precious little.

Part of this may be attributed to the fact that Lou Villars is based rather closely on a real person. The central photograph, from which the book takes its name, is based on one that really exists. Prose saw this and then found out that the lesbian in the photo was a Nazi collaborator who performed certain treasonous acts. She considered writing nonfiction, but chose to go with a novel. One must wonder why. It may be that there simply wasn't enough information available to fill out a book with historical truth.

She deals with this by switching between half a dozen or so different narrators, who expand the scene of prewar Paris. This mechanism itself gets a little awkward: one character's chapters are always, repeatedly, labeled "to be destroyed on the occasion of the author's death." One secondary character, the nightclub owner, gets a third-person narrator for some reason.

The bulk of the work of bringing Lou to life is thrown in the lap of Nathalie Dunois, who has ostensibly written a nonfiction book about Lou Villars. Prose writes herself into a corner here, having Dunois explain her own motivations in the midst of her chapters, and take long breaks for self-analysis and speculation. One can't help but think that Dunois is meant to be Prose's counterpart, trying to dig through history and liven it up with fictional embellishments.

It is not a convincing act. "Nathalie" ultimately does not provide enough insight into Lou to make her shine as a character, but she provides too much detail for her chapters to seem like a convincing, primary-sourced nonfiction account. Nathalie is also, it turns out, something of a fickle and unreliable narrator. These shortcomings are addressed by a last-minute surprise that is one of the book's bright moments, but it comes too late.

There are beautiful things here--the inside of a nightclub that takes all comers, the boarded-up hunt for champagne in Paris before the war, the voice of the American writer Lionel Maine, who is a send-up of all the hobo-chauvinist expat writers of the 1930s. This last voice is the most compelling, perhaps because he never gets caught up in trying to explain what's up with Lou Villars. He goes back to America before the gory stuff happens. Prose clearly had fun writing him.

But even old Lionel is dragged back in, on his American deathbed, for the end of the book. He spends his later years (and I am not making this up) obsessively rewinding and watching the final scene of Carrie, in which the buried evil girl shoves her arm up through the gravesite, refusing to stay buried.

Lou Villars, and the real-life Nazi atrocities into which she is fictionally shoehorned, should have been left in the ground.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This novel, told from many different viewpoints, lands us back in the by-now familiar territory of Paris in the 1930s, the Paris of Picasso, Josephine Baker, of starving writers, cross-dressing men and women, slumming aristocrats and beau vivants partying away a doomed decade while the cloud of war darkens the horizon.

The central character is Louisianne Villars, based on a real person, an aspiring Olympic star and racing car champion who was banned from representing France in competition because she wore male clothing. She became Hitler's guest at the 1936 Olympics and ended up collaborating with the Nazis.

We hear about Lou's life as reconstructed by the great niece of another woman who moved in the same circle - but our narrator is not completely reliable either. We also hear the voices of a dissolute American novelist who seems to be based on Henry Miller; a gifted Hungarian photographer; his rich baroness mentor; his lover; a nightclub owner and several others. We get from this a kaleidoscopic picture of a society hurtling toward disaster.

It's beautifully done and very absorbing but there is a hole at the center. That hole is the main character pf Lou Villars. Unlike the celebrated photograph the young Hungarian takes of her wearing a tuxedo, holding hands were her lover, she doesn't quite come into focus. We learn of the various disappointments in love that she suffers, the rejections she experiences, all of which gradually force her, we're led to believe, on to a path of betraying her country and ultimately becoming a Gestapo torturer. But it doesn't hang together. Lou does awful things and convinces herself that they are justified -- but she doesn't convince us. The book, ultimately, trivializes her crimes by trying to explain them away.

Lou is manipulated by others like a pawn. We're told she's not very bright and not very attractive. "She was not a stupid woman," her would-be biographer states. "She was, however, limited. Subtleties enraged her and anything ambiguous seemed to contain a possible insult. Also, she was resentful. Life had not gone her way."

That could, I suppose, been written of Hitler too, early in his career. All Lou wants, we're told, is to be allowed to dress like a boy and find someone to love her. Failing that, she's ready to torture her fellow countrymen and women on behalf of the Nazis and to give away the secret of where the Maginot Line ended -- which, it is suggested, sealed France's fate in 1940. Historically, that's pretty hard to swallow.

The danger is centering a novel on a banal character, in order to illustrate the banality of evil, is that the novel itself may become banal. Francine Prose introduces us to enough other colorful characters to offset this danger and to construct a rather fascinating work of art. But ultimately, the lack of a true character at the center of the work emerges as a weakness that saps away at the vitality of the book. We're left to wonder what the author is trying to say. Is this indeed an attempt to undermine the idea of a single truth, a la Rashamon? it a treatise on the unreliability of memory and the difficulty of ascribing blame and moral judgment? Or is it a rather skillfully-told tale by an expert story teller that teases us with hints of great themes -- but fails to deliver?
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Inspired by one of Hungarian photographer Brassai's famous works titled, "Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932," author Francine Prose brings Paris in the 1930's to life through the character of Lou Villars.

Villars story is based on the real-life Violette Morris, the woman who wears a tuxedo in that photo. Morris was an Olympic hopeful, a professional auto racer, a cross-dressing dancer and eventual Nazi collaborator and spy.

This is an intriguing story, told through the disparate points of view of the many fascinating people who knew Lou Villars or who knew of her.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 21, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book is admittedly, not for everyone. It explores the demi monde of Paris just before WWII in an as yet unseen way, through the eyes of a lesbian athlete/daredevil and thus, parts of the story may be a little out there for some. Yet there is no denying that it is full of interesting characters and compelling fact-based fiction. Some of it is shocking but it has a certain "Cabaret" charm that does appeal. The main character is a rich composite that will keep you guessing and entertained.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The locus of Francine Prose's sterling new book is the fictional Chameleon Club in Paris (Montparnasse), and even more specifically, a picture of two female lovers at the club taken in 1932 (the eponymous "Lovers at the Chameleon Club") by Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, who resides in Paris. The story takes place primarily in the years leading up to and including WW II, although the shifting narrative perspectives also encompass contemporary time reflecting back to that period. Paris comes across as more than a setting--its atmospheric presence comes alive, as if it, too, were a character in this luminous tale.

Through Prose's glowing lens and Rashomon effect, we see the darkness of the soul, the murkiness of memory, and the shadows of human existence. The central character of the novel is Lou Villars, a French lesbian, cross-dressing athlete and racecar driver, based loosely on the life of Violette Morris, who spied on France for the Nazis. She was one of the lovers in the photo, taken when she worked at the Chameleon Club. How did this poor French orphan, in love with France, come to spy on her country?

The biographer in this novel is Nathalie Dunois, who she tells us is the great-niece of Suzanne Dunois, Gabor's wife. Nathalie tells the story (in alternating chapters with other characters) about what happened during this period. In addition, she describes the psychological/philosophical experience of being a biographer--of not just Lou Villar, but of the mystery of evil.

"...having encountered, time and again, the concerted efforts to remove Lou Villars from history..., I have had to embroider a bit, fill in gaps, invent dialogue, make an occasional imaginative leap or informed guess about what my subject would have thought and felt."

Besides Nathalie, Suzanne Dunois is writing her memoir (to be destroyed on her death), chronicling back to her salad days with Gabor, including memories of when Lou worked for the Chameleon Club. Other main players are American writer Lionel Maine, Gabor's best friend, and the Baroness Lily De Rossignol, married to a wealthy industrialist/manufacturer of elite automobiles. The baroness was the main patron of Gabor, backing him financially in his photography business. Gabor's letters home to his parents in Hungary are braided within the narratives. The chapters on Yvonne, the Hungarian who owned the Chameleon Club, are written in third person.

What unfolds is an inventive story about love, betrayal, secrets, lies, identity, vice, moral truth, historical verity, the mystery of evil--and the slaying of tin gods by an author who does it with panache, and sympathy for her characters. Each person in the novel searches for sanctuary of some kind, whether concrete or ideal. The reader picks up subtle hints of contradiction between narrators, or maybe just a parallax view.

Gabor's transcendent use of his camera captures the streets and places in Paris, from lowly squalor to high society, preserving memory or manipulating it; revealing or concealing; promoting or poisoning; metaphorically reflecting or refracting a moment in time for future pondering and present unease. Gabor can capitalize on wartime tragedy:

"I am thinking, It's fabulous for my art. Is it my fault that desperation looks so stunning through the camera lens?"

The truth is full of shadows and dreams, and the story questions the tilt of history's moral compass; by the end, it seemed more like a prism.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The demimonde of the City of Light between the wars -- what's not to like? Unfortunately, in this book, just about everything. Its fatal flaw is the author's choice to write chapters from the p-o-v of different characters which made it, for me, a very tedious read. Add to that mostly annoying and/or unlikeable characters populating a story that, at its heart, is quite inert. Which is hard to believe given the rich pre-WWII time period and locale. I stuck it out to the end and it only got worse, not better.

Do yourself a favor, don't bother with this book but instead find one (there are several) featuring the photographs of Brassai, the real-life photographer upon whom one of this book's characters is based. Brassai's photographs instantly transport you back to Paris in the '30s, a city that's simultaneously alluring and enigmatic. His images invite you to create stories that will far surpass those of Lovers at the Chameleon Club Paris 1932.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
When I was about a third of the way through this book, I read some of the blurbs on the back of my copy and noticed that one of the reviewers referred to this as a mystery. That was very surprising to me, because it was reading like a historical novel. From that point on, I was on the alert of what aspect of this story, set in Paris from the 1920’s to just after World War II, could make it a mystery.

The novel is set up as a combination of letters, biographies and autobiographies of the main characters. This mix of point of views, voices and writing styles holds the reader’s interest and allows for a multi-faceted picture of the events described as Paris transitions from the ex-pat era of the 20’s to the Nazi occupation. It’s also interesting to see how some of the characters get to speak in their own voice, and some are spoken for. The format in which the characters are portrayed ends up playing almost a bigger role than the characters themselves.

One of the best aspects of the book was the way that Francine Prose, while describing a very unique and transformative time in history, still manages to create characters most readers have met – ones who are instantly recognizable despite the huge differences of time, place or nationality.

“And everyone has, at some point, met a man like Chanac: those lucky individuals who continually fail upward, who are fired for incompetence or for some abuse of power and instantly find a better job. We ordinary mortals would have wound up in jail or on the street! But these chosen ones rise higher – in politics, business, or even at a sleepy provincial high school. And so this pattern repeats itself: promotion, crime, exposure, failure, bigger crime, bigger failure, bigger promotion.”

This story of love and war and betrayal, good and evil, uses as one of its main characters a woman named Lou Villars. The reader is told from the beginning that she betrayed her country and helped the Nazis, and then step by step, is led down the path from her childhood to adulthood – with significant events highlighted along the way. Her biographer (who entitles her book “The Devil Drives”) points out each and every event that might have sculpted Lou – led to her views and actions.

“Looking into the sources of evil, as I have in writing this book, I have developed a profound respect (if respect is the word) for the power of resentment, the corrosive acid produced by the conviction that a person has been overlooked, cheated, or betrayed.”

The other characters surrounding Lou tell their stories as well – their tales of the city they love, their reasons for the choices they made and the actions they took. Especially in the lead up to and beginnings of the war, their stories become more introspective. “Later, when such stories could be told, everyone had a story about the moment they decided to do the right thing.”

These stories that circle around and intersect with that of Lou Villars start to fit together, piece by piece – to create her portrait. “Was it wrong to make one person suffer to prevent harm to many? When Lou pondered that, when she tried not to, it gave her a headache. She’d leave those questions to the philosophers and do what she did best.”

Only at the VERY end of the book, did I understand the mystery of it. As I finished the book, I thought back on so much of what I had read, so many things I had accepted without questioning. I looked back on a quote from earlier in the book - “Everyone who has ever written a biography, everyone who has ever lived, will have notices how often a dark thread runs through the weave and weft of a life.”

And I understood then that this book was not what I thought it was about at all. While it is about people and how they react in certain circumstances, how they cope and adapt to that which life throws at them, it just wasn’t about the people I’d thought it had been. Mystery revealed.
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