05 May 2014

Review: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine ProseFrancine Prose's latest novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, takes us to the underbelly of the City of Light from the end of the Jazz Age to the end of the war. The story, loosely based on real people and real events, introduces us to an eccentric mix of individuals, whose lives intersect at the infamous bar.

The novel is told from several viewpoints, which are based on a variety of fictitious sources (newspaper articles, memoirs, a biography, and letters, for example). At the hub of the group is Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer, who captures the seedy nightlife of Paris on film, and one of his most intriguing subjects, Lou Villars, a cross-dressing lesbian whose checkered history would make her a household name.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club is a complex novel with deep themes, made all the more interesting because so much of what Prose writes about really happened. For example, Gabor Tsenyi is based on the photographer Brassaï, whose photograph Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle inspired the title of the novel. Lou Villars's story parallels the real-life Violette Morris, who indeed transitioned from athlete to dancer to race-car driver to spy. American journalist Lionel Maine is supposed to be author Henry Miller, whose early novels were banned in the United States for being pornographic.

It's hard to describe what Lovers at the Chameleon Club is all about, but one of the primary threads is an examination of love (and betrayal) in all its guises. Not even Paris offered much understanding and safety for the LBGT community in the 1930s. For example, women could be arrested for wearing men's clothing, and upper-class gay men sought understanding or naive women, hoping their paper marriages would maintain their respectability.

Prose also writes about the irresistible draw of following your passion and grabbing at the chance to live life as your truest self, no matter the cost. Gabor sacrifices his relationship with his parents to pursue his vision in Paris. Lionel leaves his wife in the States to find a place where he can write in his own voice. And Lou does the unthinkable for the implied promise that she will be able to fulfill her dreams.

A third aspect of the novel that stands out is the rise of Hitler and the effects the occupation had on all the characters and on Lou in particular. Adversity makes people do surprising things, and it's not always easy to determine who will flee, who will resist, who will succumb, and who will survive. Although Lovers at the Chameleon Club is not a World War II novel per se, the war, of course, had long-lasting repercussions for everyone who lived through it.

One of the ways Lovers at the Chameleon Club rises above other such character studies is the way in which the story is told. Multiple viewpoints and multiple sources mean we experience events from different perspectives: what one character sees as loving, another may see as manipulative; what one person praises as being for the greater good of humanity, another despises for its repression. In addition, we're treated to accounts that were written at different times: Gabor's letters and Lionel's dispatches have an immediacy, but the memoirs and biography offer a more historic interpretation.

Don't be thrown off by the multiple layers and deep themes. Lovers at the Chameleon Club is beautifully written, easily accessible, and ultimately unforgettable.

A note on the audiobook: My full audiobook review of Lovers at the Chameleon Club (Harper Audio; 18 hr, 14 min) will soon be available from AudioFile magazine. In a nutshell, I am recommending that this book be read in print.

Published by HarperCollins / Harper, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780061713781
Source: Review (audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Alex 5/5/14, 7:12 AM  

I just put a hold on this at the library after reading the NYTimes review. You seem to pretty much concur with what they wrote, and now I really can't wait to read this novel. Thnaks for sharing your thoughts about it.

bermudaonion 5/5/14, 8:02 AM  

I think I have this in print which will probably work better for me with a multi-layered book. It sounds like one I'll enjoy.

Daryl 5/5/14, 10:01 AM  

sounds intriguing … thanks!

Beth Hoffman 5/5/14, 10:11 AM  

Wonderful review! I'm drawn to layered stories that are beautifully written, and this one is going on my list!

Happy spring!

Kailana 5/5/14, 8:36 PM  

I have this to read. I am looking forward to it!

Jackie McGuinness 5/6/14, 9:08 AM  

This sounds like it is right up my alley!!! One more for the TBR list.

Vasilly 5/6/14, 9:48 AM  

After reading your review, I might pick up a copy of this from the library.

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