Book of the Week: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 – Francine Prose

This is arguably Prose’s biggest novel since her The Blue Angel, a scathing academic social satire that was a National Book Award finalist in 2000. It’s not like she hasn’t been busy in the intervening 14 years—she won the Dayton Peace Prize in 2005 for A Changed Man, as well as writing several more adult novels and some children books. Even if you are unacquainted with her novels, you’ve most likely run across her huge nonfiction bestseller, Reading like a Writer.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is a historical novel that started out as a nonfiction project—a study of  the Hungarian photographer, George Brassaï, and his wealthy artistic circle in Paris between the wars.  The editor points out that while this is not strictly a roman à clef, readers familiar with Brassaï and his circle will recognize Henry Miller, Peggy Guggenheim and most importantly the cross-dressing lesbian athlete Violette Morris who became the subject of his famous photograph “Lesbian Couple at le Monocle, 1932” in the characters Prose has created.

The endorsements are illuminating. Karen Russell writes that it is

a reading experience like none other I’ve ever had–it’s a shimmering library of possible truths and forking pathways, an anthology of lies and secrets, of self-deceit and self-indictment, complicity and resistance, myriad tales of glorious transgression, a single book grand enough to house memoirs that were supposed to be destroyed, invisible photographs, war documents, fake essays, biographies-in-progress and an epistolary bildungsroman–and did I mention these satellite narratives all orbit around the dark star of Lou Villars, a tuxedo-clad female race car driver who scandalized Paris society and later worked for the Gestapo? 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.”

Gary Shteyngart points out that this novel “goes further in destroying the concept of a single truth than Rashomon.” And Jennifer Egan says that Prose “cleverly exploits the vain, self-serving nature of memory itself, raising critical questions about the difficulty of even locating historical truth, much less dispensing moral judgments.”

Joseph-Beth bookseller and handseller extraordinaire Audrey Bullar in Cincinnati comments that

Francine Prose has created a universe so lush, so lavish and so louche that it commands the reader to dive in headfirst. The reader is immersed in bohemian Paris by way of characters whose marvelously skewed points of view are expertly rendered in distinctly meticulous voices.   Prose manages complex story lines with confidence and brio. The resulting atmosphere is not so much described as invoked by the shrewdly orchestrated skill of an assuredly masterful novelist.”

This is an Indie Next pick and advance reviews include two starred reviews. At publication it will be featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and reviewed by the NYTBR. Other review coverage will include Elle, O Magazine, Marie Claire, Interview Magazine, Washington Post, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle and the WSJ.

Prose’s 21st novel captures the brilliance of Paris’s bohemian art scene in the ’20s and ’30s…. The novel follows Lou [Villars] 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…. 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….deftly demonstrates with a wink the self-seeking nature of memory and the way we portray our past.”
–Publishers Weekly

“Brilliant and dazzling…A tour de force of character, point of view and especially atmosphere”
Kirkus Reviews, (starred review)

“[D]ark and glorious.…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.”
Booklist (starred review)

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 (9780061713781) by Francine Prose. $26.99 hardcover. 4/22/14 on sale.

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