Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel

4.5 10
by Francine Prose

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A richly imagined and stunningly inventive literary masterpiece of love, art, and betrayal, exploring the genesis of evil, the unforeseen consequences of love, and the ultimate unreliability of storytelling itself.

Paris in the 1920s shimmers with excitement, dissipation, and freedom. It is a place of intoxicating ambition, passion, art, and discontent, where

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A richly imagined and stunningly inventive literary masterpiece of love, art, and betrayal, exploring the genesis of evil, the unforeseen consequences of love, and the ultimate unreliability of storytelling itself.

Paris in the 1920s shimmers with excitement, dissipation, and freedom. It is a place 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 Hungarian 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 desperately in love and finds success as a race car driver. Gabor builds his reputation with startlingly 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—sparked by tumultuous events—that will warp her earnest desire for love and approval into something far more.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Edmund White
Francine Prose is a subtle psychologist and a compassionate humanist, but nevertheless she has created a genuinely evil character in Lou Villars…Prose is careful to show how a decent but under-loved girl becomes a monster. Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford referred frequently to the strategy known as progression d'effet. Prose has mastered this kind of narrative magic, revealing the gradual transformation of white to black through tiny gradations…Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is a novel of great reach and power, a portrait of an entire era. Prose's canvas is crowded with many characters, but they're all well-delineated. She has a miraculous gift for imagining a foggy quay or a smoky cabaret—or a strait-laced banquet given by the Führer…Though there are multiple narrators, each is distinct, since Prose has a knack for parodying different voices.
Publishers Weekly
Prose’s 21st novel (after The Turning) captures the brilliance of Paris’s bohemian art scene in the ’20s and ’30s, as well as the dark days that followed. Louisianne “Lou” Villars, a talented athlete, travels to Paris as a teenager, hoping to someday compete in the Olympics, but instead she ends up checking coats at the Chameleon Club, famed around the city for its gender-defying patrons and cabaret. Lou’s real-life model is Violette Morris, a cross-dressing professional race car driver turned Nazi spy, immortalized in Brassaï’s iconic photograph, Lesbian Couple at le Monocle, 1932. The novel follows Lou as she falls in and out of love, becomes a professional race car driver, and dines with the Führer in Berlin. This story is told piecemeal through the frequently unreliable and self-serving recollections of Lou’s friends—among them the visionary and egotistical photographer Gabor Tsenyi; Lily de Rossignol, Gabor and Lou’s benefactress; and Nathalie Dunois, Lou’s biographer. The novel skillfully portrays the headiness of Parisian cafes, where artists and writers came together to talk and cadge free drinks, and the terror of the Nazi Occupation. Though the momentum lags at times, Prose deftly demonstrates with a wink the self-seeking nature of memory and the way we portray our past. (May)
Karen Russell
“A reading experience like none other-a shimmering library of possible truths and forking pathways…Readers of this extraordinary novel become Villars’ co-biographers, piecing through ‘official’ and underground accounts as ample (and as unreliable) as the human library of memory. I was addicted to this book.”
“Engrossing...The narrative twists and turns, circles back to add depth to previous scenes, at other times casts doubt on the reliability of a narrator, and occasionally calls into question the entire endeavor of historical fiction.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-04
A tour de force of character, point of view and especially atmosphere, Prose's latest takes place in Paris from the late 1920s till the end of World War II. The primary locus of action is the Chameleon Club, a cabaret where entertainment edges toward the kinky. Presiding most nights is Eva "Yvonne" Nagy, a Hungarian chanteuse and mistress of the revels. The name of the club is not strictly metaphorical, for Yvonne has a pet lizard, but the cabaret is also famous as a place where Le Tout-Paris can gather and cross-dress, and homosexual lovers can be entertained there with some degree of privacy. One of the most fascinating denizens of the club is Lou Villars, in her youth an astounding athlete and in her adulthood a dancer (with her lover Arlette) at the club and even later a race car driver and eventually a German spy in Paris during the Occupation. Villars and Arlette are the subjects of what becomes the era's iconic photograph, one that gives the novel its title. This image is taken by Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, eventual lover (and later husband) of sexual athlete Suzanne Dunois. Tsenyi is also a protégé of Baroness Lily de Rossignol, former Hollywood actress, now married to the gay Baron de Rossignol, the fabulously wealthy owner of a French car manufacturing company. Within this multilayered web of characters, Prose manages to give almost every character a voice, ranging from Tsenyi's eager letters home to his parents, excerpts from a putative biography of Lou Villars (supposedly written by Suzanne's great-niece) entitled The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars, Lily de Rossignol's memoirs and further reminiscences by Lionel Maine, Suzanne's lover before she was "stolen away" by the photographer. Brilliant and dazzling Prose.
Booklist (starred review)
“A dark and glorious tour de force…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.”
Shelf Awareness
“Prose’s novel pulses with the heartbeat of real life, brimming with colorful characters as artists (including, notably, Pablo Picasso), petty forgers, Nazis and resistance fighters meet on the page… It is a testament to Prose’s considerable talent that she’s able to execute such an ambitious work so flawlessly.”
Miami Herald
“A tour de force…The result is fresh, layered and nuanced. It’s historical fiction done right and one of the finest accomplishments of this accomplished author…The novel dazzles. With sure, intelligent narrative and elegant detail, Prose has crafted a story that honors its characters and a pivotal time in history.”
The Washington Post
“So dazzlingly does Francine Prose re-create this seamy chapter of mid-century Paris that it’s tempting to think of her as not a novelist but an editor who corralled all these people into a raucous work of history...C’est magnifique!”
Wall Street Journal
“Prose exuberantly conjures up the romance of that unstable era…filled with felicitous imagery and sparkling period details.”
The Tampa Bay Times
“Prose does an impressive job crafting a plot in which each version of the story takes on its own dimensions and echoes - and the biggest question may be just which one of those narrators is the most outrageously unreliable.”
The Daily Beast
“Francine Prose, in a testament to her talents, has managed to create a wartime saga that is both original and epic.”
“LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB, PARIS 1932 is a remarkable work of fiction that feels completely true. Richly atmospheric and utterly engrossing, it is not to be missed.”
Gary Shteyngart
“Prose’s latest book goes further in destroying the concept of a single truth than ‘Rashomon.’ It’s also an uproarious portrait of Paris from the mid-twenties to the Second World War. Prose has always been adept at slaying sacred cows; in this book, she pretty much machine-guns them.”
Jennifer Egan
“An engrossing literary mystery…Refracting the vivid, villainous life of Louisianne Villars through letters, memoirs, and the recreations of a biographer, Prose coaxes into kaleidoscopic view both a tortured human being and bohemian Paris before and during the Nazi occupation… she cleverly exploits the vain, self-serving nature of memory itself.”
Scott Spencer
“A pitch perfect pastiche that interrogates the meaning of art and the limits of loyalty. With a style that is beautiful, strong, modest and absolutely authoritative Prose directs the light of her immense talent on the horrors of fascism and the puzzling, sometimes punishing nature of love. A great novel.”
Michael Cunningham
“Significant writers are rare. A writer like Prose, who is not only significant but capable of writing brilliantly about pretty much anything-from obsessive love to religious ecstasy to life in Paris in the twenties and beyond-is not only rare. She is, essentially, the Hope Diamond of literature.”
Diane Johnson
“Brilliant and wicked and funny and right on-never has Europe been done with such savage precision…Every bit funny and appalling, at the end especially, of course. There’s not a French affectation, hypocrisy or depravity left untouched. I love it!”
Joshua Ferris
“Prose is the real chameleon here, blending effortlessly into half a dozen disparate voices…The result is a perfect stunner, the novel-as-a Picasso, or a kaleidoscope-vivid, fractured, and spellbinding…Prose is one of our sharpest critics and our most daring novelists, and this is her best book.”
O Magazine
“A master of the craft delivers a riveting period piece that probes the origins of evil.”
The New York Times
“The breadth, nerve and intricacy of Francine Prose’s big new novel should surprise even her most regular readers. A bona fide page turner…”
The New York Times Book Review
“A novel of great reach and power, a portrait of an entire era.”
Interview Magazine
Many sure-footed novelists have tried to embody Paris in its boozy, gender-bending, art-and-outrage pre-occupation golden age of the ‘20s and ‘30s before, but the ever-exceptional Prose succeeds in making the city alive by supplying it with a dissonant, avant-garde chorus of voices…
The Seattle Times
“The circumstances that foster such unhappiness are always elusive, but they can be explored. That’s the task of a good novel, and Prose has done the job.”
The San Francisco Chronicle
“Prose’s excellent novel, which treads between lightly mischievous (mocking Henry Miller) and deadly serious (invading Nazis), centers on a fictionalized French Olympic hopeful who spied for the Germans - and was killed by the Resistance in 1944.”
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“A rich portrait of a difficult age”
W Magazine
“[F]ascinating… Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 captures the vibrance and violence of bohemian Paris before World War II…”
Marie Claire
“Sexy, cross-dressing athlete Lou Villars is as complex as her Nazi-era Paris home.”
The Chicago Tribune
“At its best moments, the reader almost becomes another character in the novel, searching for meaning amid the menace and beauty of wartime Paris, surrounded by the city’s many conflicting truths.”
“LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB, PARIS 1932 paints an unforgettable portrait of Paris between the wars, a time and place that holds endless fascination for readers.”
USA Today
“Provocative, powerful.”
The Asheville Citizen-Times
“LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB is a teeming social portrait, told through several peculiar voices - Lou’s is not one of them - and made real by astonishingly authentic details… Prose is versatile and fluid.”
Maureen Corrigan
“An ingenious excursion into the Parisian demimonde.”
“The wonder of Ms. Prose’s terrific historical novel is how she takes inspiration from a work of visual art and builds, not just one story, not just one voice, but a kaleidoscope of voices and angles about individuals whose lives intersect at a particular time and place.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Sexy, illicit … the best stories come to us many times over, repeated until even their true parts bear the qualities of fiction. They’re also the ones we can’t possibly know all of. This powerful, perceptive book offers these truths, and-even better-a great story to shroud them.”
Lesbian & Gay Review
“Epic...this world takes on a depth and breadth that justifies the novel’s sweeping ambitions
Library Journal
What's most striking about this latest work from Prose (Blue Angel) is how effectively she weaves together the stories of more than a half dozen characters to tell the larger picture of France (and, indeed, Europe) between the World Wars while reflecting on the nature of evil and the limits of biography (and biographical fiction). In these pages we meet Gabor, a Hungarian photographer modeled on Brassaï, who is friends with blustery, self-absorbed American novelist Lionel Maine (obviously Hemingway) and whose patron is Baroness Lily de Rossignol, a former actress with an affecting backstory and a hint of Peggy Guggenheim. Gabor's love (once Lionel's) is the hearty and charming Suzanne Dunois, reputedly the subject of a biography drawn from her memoirs by a great-niece. The protagonists are brought together at Paris's steamy, anything-goes Chameleon Club, where they cross paths with the linchpin character, Lou Villars, a cross-dressing lesbian who finds shelter at the club and goes on to a skewed career as a performer, racing-car driver, and, shockingly, supporter of National Socialism. At first a smoothly unrolling tapestry, the novel deepens as it portrays a society careening toward war. VERDICT Both entertaining and reflective for any reader of fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 11/3/13.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

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HarperCollins Publishers
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8.90(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.90(d)

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