Monday, December 7, 2015

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 - Francine Prose

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932This book has been on my to-read list for quite a while, but the university library system in DC didn't have it.  However, when I was scanning the popular reads section a few weeks ago, it was there!  So of course I picked it up.

The book is historical fiction written in the style of a collection of memoirs, letters, biographies, and even some chapters that are written in a typical third-person narrative style.  Each character has his or her own style that's maintained throughout the book; Lionel writes books that aren't specifically memoirs, but are definitely first-person, while Lily and Suzanne write memoirs, Gabor writes letters to his parents, and Lou's story is told through a biography written in 2010.  The mix of styles means that each character has a distinctive voice, and their overlapping opinions and version of events give a nuanced feeling to the story.  What's most interesting about this book, though, is that it's a fictionalized version of historical events--obviously, because it's historical fiction, but even more closely than most historical fiction is.  All of the characters are re-named real people, so that Prose could draw heavily on their real lives and doings but still have some creative license.  The title is taken from the title of Gabor's book-within-a-book, which is in turn named for a photo he took.  While the photo described in the book is its own, it's easy to see that it's drawn heavily from this photo:

"Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932" by Brassai, Cleveland Museum of Art 

This makes Gabor, Brassai, a real-life Hungarian photographer, and Lou Villars is really Violette Morris, a female athlete turned Nazi sympathizer.  The book is clearly built off Prose's fascination with Morris/Villars, and how such a young woman could slide into what could, arguably, be called evil amongt the larger narrative of Europe's slide into World War II.  The other characters' stories all really revolve around Lou's, even though they have their own events happening beyond her scope.  Possibly this was meant to be a real biography that Prose reworked into a fictionalized version, possibly not; but it was a delightful read nonetheless.  I didn't know anything about Morris, Brassai, or the other real-life people who inspired the characters before I read this, but the book made me want to read and learn more about them, and that's a good book indeed.  It does have the result, however, of having to keep in mind that the book is fiction, and carefully balancing out the real-life aspects with the fictionalized aspects in one's head.

Out of all the sections, Gabor's were my least favorite.  I dislike narratives written in letter form, and I was glad that Gabor's letters shortened and became more scarce as the book went on, to be replaced by chapters of the memoirs and the pseduo-biography instead.  And then, from nowhere--gasp!--we get an unreliable narrator!  Ugh, that bothers me so much, but at the same time it gives a ton more dimension to what could have been a good, but somewhat flat, book, because it raises the question...who is telling the truth?  And for the unreliable narrator, what was that person's motive in telling the story as he or she did?  These are questions that are never actually resolved in the book, though another character speculates on them in the end, and it left me with some food for thought, something to chew over while starting on my next book.  I started reading All the Light We Cannot See while I was reading Lovers, which is another World War II historical-fiction book, and the two paired together have made an excellent read so far.

Overall, I really liked this is a historical fiction, but some of the characters--like Lionel, and Arlette--annoyed me enough that I'm not quite willing to give it a full 4 stars.  There's no preface or prologue explaining the pseudo-historical aspects of it, either, which I don't like; when something treads this close to the truth/fiction boundary, I feel like the author should at least have the decency to own up to it and put the facts straight in an afterword.  I'm not sure if I'd read this again, but I liked it this time around.

3.5 stars.

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