Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Book Review: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose
Author: Francine Prose
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Content Alert: language, sex, violence, war
I'll be honest: I didn't like this book very much to begin with. The initial chapter, which is a letter from Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi to his parents, thanking them for supporting him as he found his artistic footing in Paris. Gabor sounded childish and indulged and petulant, and I wasn't sure I wanted to continue with his story for another 440 pages or so. But I was out for a run, and I didn't want to stop to find another book on my phone, so I kept listening.
I'm so glad I did. Lovers at the Chameleon Club is everything I love in a book. It's epic and detailed (which I know grates on some people), involves a historical setting-- Paris from the late 1920s through World War II (I just found out that the story was inspired by an actual photograph and some of the characters are loosely based on actual people), lots of narrative voices, unreliable narrators, and a rich, complex, sympathetically unsympathetic female protagonist in Lou Villars.
From the time Lou is a small child, she's different from other girls. She wants to dress like a boy, and her parents eventually send her to a convent school because they find it difficult to be around her. From there she becomes preyed upon, both by other students and by the quack doctor who trains her for the Olympics and gets her to run off and join him in her feats of athletic prowess. From there she lands in Paris, where she works in a gay/lesbian nightclub, The Chameleon Club. Eventually, her story joins Gabor's story, when he takes her photo and it makes him famous and her infamous. Later, her star burns brightly when she becomes a racecar driver, but she later finds her calling in a more sinister purpose.
The book is lovely, because I am the kind of reader who loves losing herself in what others might consider too many details or too many perspectives of the same events. I loved Lou's character, and what writing her biography did to the woman who chose her as a subject (although the last chapter was a little strange in that regard). It's definitely an adult book, and one that gives readers an insight not only into the glittery, Josephine Baker Paris of the late 1920s and the early 1930s, but also how everyday Parisians lived during World War II.