Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose. Harper Collins 2014

Prolific author Prose has written a complex and stirring historical novel based on real events and people. She weaves together six narrative strands to make a complete picture of not just the main subject of the story- Lou Villars, athlete, auto racer, mechanic, lesbian, Gestapo spy and informant- but of the people, rich and poor, around her and Paris itself just prior to the German occupation and during it. The characters and the city come alive in her tale of a French patriot- maltreated by her own country and seduced by false promises from Hitler- who, by leaking the location of the end of the Maginot line, quite possibly, single handedly, made the occupation of France possible.

Lou Villars is based on Violette Morris, who did all the things that Lou does in the story, including having an elective double mastectomy that made it easier for her to steer a race car.  She lived openly as gay and dressed in male clothing. She could have gone down in history as a great athlete instead of as the torturing monster she became. Why did someone who claimed to love France betray her country? Prose has come up with a pretty convincing possibility. Many of the other characters, artists and writers, are based on real people as well.

The story is not just a fictionalized biography, though. The scope is wide and includes love, art, courage, and how the truth is seen from different perspectives. The writing is excellent and, despite the grim subjects, very engaging. I stayed up late trying to finish it and got up again in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep without knowing how it would end.  It was worth being sleepy today. 

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