Book Quote:

“Dear parents,

Last night I visited a club in Montparnasse where the men dress as women and the women as men. Papa would have loved it. And Mama’s face would have crinkled in that special smile she has for Papa’s passion for everything French.

The place is called the Chameleon Club. It’s a few steps down from the street. You need a password to get in. The password is: Police! Open up! The customers find it amusing.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (APR 22, 2014)

Early on in Francine Prose’s richly imagined and intricately constructed tour de force, Yvonne – the proprietress of the Parisian Chameleon Club –tells a story about her pet lizard, Darius. “One night I was working out front. My friend, a German admiral whose name you would know, let himself into my office and put my darling Darius on my paisley shawl. He died, exhausted by the strain of turning all those colors.”

History – and the people who compose it – is itself a chameleon, subject to multiple interpretations. Ms. Prose seems less interested in exploring “what is the truth” and more intrigued with the question, “Is there truth?”

The title derives from a photograph that defined the career of the fictional photographer, Gabor Tsenyl: two female lovers lean towards each other at the Chameleon Club table. His is one of five narratives that punctuate the novel. The showcase narrative – written as a biography by the grand-niece of one of the participants – focuses on Lou Villars, a one-time Olympic hopeful and scandalous cross-dresser who crosses over to the dark side and becomes a Nazi collaborator. The other four narratives are composed of devoted letters from Gabor to his parents; the unpublished memoirs of Suzanne, his wife; excerpts from a book by the libertine expatriate writer Lionel Maine; and finally, the memoirs of a benefactor of the arts, Baroness Lily de Rossignol. Each narrative plays off the others and provides subtle suggestions that the other narratives may not be entirely accurate.

What is the truth of this intoxicating time, when artists of all kinds gravitated to the Paris scene and when war with Germany was an increasingly sober possibility? Francine Prose suggests that the truth is fluid. Reportedly, Lou Villars was inspired by a real person named Violette Morris. There are more than a few hints of Peggy Guggenheim in Lily de Rossignol and Lionel Maine bears a resemblance to Henry Miller. How much is fact and how much is fiction?

And once the reader gets over that hurdle, how much of what is revealed by the fictional characters is distorted through their own lens? How much of that is truth and how much is perception? Can we ever know the real person who lurks behind the mask? As Francine Prose writes, “The self who touches and is touched in the dark ,between the sheets, is not the same self who gets up in the morning and goes out to buy coffee and croissants.

I’ve said little about plot and that’s deliberate: the unfolding of the plot is for each reader to discover himself or herself. I will say this: the writing is exquisite and in my opinion, elevates an already talented contemporary writer to entirely new levels. The ending is breathtaking in its audacity. The setting – Paris in the late 1920s – is mesmerizing. The themes touch on universal matters: getting in touch with our authentic selves, crossing society-imposed gender barriers, understanding the fluidness of morality, searching for love and approval in dangerous places, making sacrifices for art, and discovering that history is not immutable, but changes depending on who tells it.

I read Lovers at the Chameleon Club directly after another very disparate book: Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. Interestingly, both tackle the meaning of truth from very different yet unique angles. This is a stunning book and I enthusiastically recommend it.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 13 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper (April 22, 2014)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Francine Prose
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

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April 22, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Facing History, France, Literary, World Lit

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