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: It is a city 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 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 in love and finds success as a race car driver. Gabor builds his reputation with vivid and imaginative photographs, including a haunting portrait of Lou and her lover, which will resonate through all their lives. As the exuberant '20s give way to darker times, Lou experiences another metamorphosis that will warp her earnest desire for love and approval into something far more sinister: Collaboration with the Nazis. Told in a kaleidoscope of voices, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 evokes this incandescent city with brio, humor, and intimacy. A brilliant work of fiction and a mesmerizing listen, it is Francine Prose's finest novel yet.
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****?Are all Audible productions of this book created equally? If they are, and you listen to the same recording I did, you are going into this novel without some fascinating information --Ripley Believe It or Not, Guinness Book of World Record fascinating -- provided by the author in a letter to the reader/listener at the beginning of the book. Francine Prose writes about an actual black and white photo she saw at an exhibition that served as the inspiration for this novel: "Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932" by famous Hungarian photographer Brassaï, taken at club Le Monocle in Montmartre, Paris. The provocative photo shows a pair of female lovers sharing a table, one dressed as a male in a tuxedo. Captivated by the image (*which you can Google easily) Prose began researching the photo, finding out about the subjects, the Le Monocle, the patrons, and the period of frivolity that seemed to be driven to excesses by the darkening threat of WW II. The provenance of the photo alone is riveting, but for a author with a such creative mind, the eyes looking out from that B&W must have demanded more from her.
The cross-dresser in Brassaï's photo is the infamous Violette Morris; a French athlete that excelled in all athletic events from boxing to track and field. When she began competing in motorcycle and sports car races she had a double mastectomy to make it easier for her to slide behind the steering wheel. Some of her records still stand and were earned competing against men as well as women, even in heavy-weight boxing (Violette was a 5'5" and 150 lbs. wolverine). She was the only female to ever make the all-male French National Water Polo Team. Eventually, Violette was banned from competing in any athletics, (because of her cross-dressing and lesbianism) including the 1928 Olympics, which she dreamed of and worked for. She became a mechanic, then drove an ambulance on the front lines for her country. Her lustrous career waned, then darkened completely when she was recruited by a Nazi spy, and invited personally by Hitler to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics (where she won 2 gold, 1 silver, medals). In an act most likely of revenge, Violette quickly moved through the ranks to become one of Hitler's most notorious operatives, known as "The Hyena of the Gestapo" for her ability to uncover those involved in the Resistance, and her enthusiastic torture of her former countrymen. She was ambushed while on a drive in one of her sports cars, the car completely riddled with machine gun fire, the British and French Resistance the suspected executioners. Her body was never claimed; she was buried in a common grave. **** whew! now on to my review...
* * * * * Prose has combined the intriguing history with an original concept, reconstructing it into a seductive fictional story written with force and beauty. Without compromising the integrity of the facts or moralizing, she creates a mystery that is just as much a parable, with profound moral questions that are never far from the surface. As a reader you are transported to the exotic left bank of the Seine, and through the streets that Henry Miller described as "capable of transforming the negativity of reality of life into the substantial and significant outlines of art," "surrounded by the men and women of Matisse." A secret password, 'Police! Open up!' throws open the doors to the fictional Chameleon Club and the patrons seeking refuge from society's imposed gender barriers. Alive with flamboyant color, the club is a decadent haven for *glorious peacocks,* women dressed like men, 'bankers and diplomats whose wives might not know they like to go out and dance in heels,' (and where perhaps Josephine Baker's infamous diamond-collared cheetah may have terrorized the orchestra). Ensconced into a leather booth, tucked against a sleek modern beauty, sits the tuxedo-clad Louisianne *Lou* Villars (Violette Morris).
Prose's characters are alive and vibrant, which they actual were in their historical incarnation, and as a skilled author, she inhabits them completely without overlapping any personal nuances. The owner of the Chameleon Club is an Hungarian blonde beauty, always dressed in red, known as Yvonne. A throaty voiced chanteuse with a penchant for sailors, and a large pet chameleon named Louis, that lives in a terrarium in her room -- she is the master of ceremonies to the menagerie of colorful characters that gather at her club and lend their voices to the alternating narratives: the Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyl (Brassaï); his American friend/writer/womanizer Lionel Maine (Henry Miller); the wealthy patron of the artists, a French Baroness by-way-of-Hollywood, Baroness Lily de Rossignol; her husband Baron Rossignol, owner of the Rossignol automobile dynasty, a gay man that prefers Swedish boys to his lovely wife; and an assorted artistically advantaged ensemble not seen since Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Looking back at the events from current time, and writing the biography of Lou Villars, is Nathalie Dunois, a neutrotic distant relative of photograper Gabor's wife. From their letters and narratives the reader must solve the mystery of Lou's evolution. Each has their own experience of Lou, their own perspective. With differing versions, the reader is faced with deciding whether any of these inherently limited truths account for a totality of truth about Lou and her transformation from Catholic schoolgirl to Hitler's favorite Gestapo operative.
I was conflicted about a rating. Prose is definitely one of the finest contemporary writers I've read, but the introduction of these characters is detailed, a long demanding portion of the book (almost half). The intoxication of 30's Paris, the pandemonium in the club, the luminous characters and their complex stories, all make for some tricky footwork just to keep pace. This is not text you just ingest -- you have to chew on it, digest it. You don't just easily slide in and ride along. So I battled with that 5* rating...then looked back at the Nabokov quote the author uses as her lead-in to this novel...
❝Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between.❞ [That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature." from Nabokov's Lectures on Literature.] He continues ..."a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle..."
You could say that 5th star was a victim of the telltale tingle. Lover's at the Chameleon Club is a book of tingly genius; just imagining Montparnasse during the early twentieth century -- this crossroads of artistic revolution, with Stravinsky, Copland, Picasso, Duchamp, Chagall, Diaghilev, Hemingway -- French intellectuals Proust, Sartre...I was already primed with a tingle. Absolutely, Prose created a prismatic and hypnotic novel, but a grand portion of that colorful magic was provided by history, and a black and white photo...and that is where I place my fifth star. Beyond the story, or within the story, I felt Prose incorporated a parable that provides some eternal wisdom: the parable implies that even though one's subjective experiences can be true, theirs doesn't account for other truths, or the totality of truth. There is some relativism to truths, or 'an inexpressible nature of truth,' a deficit that requires communicate and respect for different perspectives. History (and sometimes fiction) is a great teacher, and Lovers at the Chameleon Club a great book.
Highly recommend with the suggestions to persevere, and to look up Violette Morris (if you have any time left after this reading this looong review.) I appreciate your time and hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.
The audiobook format is particularly suited to story lines with multiple points of view. We know immediately whose perspective we're hearing, and, in the case of multi-narrator presentations like this one, we get a full sense of different characters' personalities without the confusion that reading written text sometimes creates. This audiobook delivers on so many fronts: a terrific story that is multi-layered and fascinating, and narration that evokes all the smoky, sexy ambiance of Paris plus the tension of pre- to post-war Europe. Accents were spot on, especially the women's, and we needed them to flesh out these diverse and complex characters. Terrific writing from an acclaimed author who doesn't disappoint, and terrific narration and storytelling by an accomplished cast of voice actors.