book review: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

lovers at chameleon club

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose. Publisher: Harper (April 2014). Historical fiction. Hardcover. 448 pg. ISBN 978-0-061713781.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 centers on a cabaret club, The Chameleon Club, in Paris from the late twenties through World War II. It’s a place where the disenfranchised, the strange, the neglected and the outcasts seek refuge within its safe walls at least for a while. In Yvonne’s club, cross-dressers and homosexuals can gather and be free to love and be loved and perform and dance and enjoy themselves. To be themselves without questions, without fear of judgment or penalty.

Author Francine Prose based this complex tapestry on well-known Brassi photograph “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932.” She discovered that the woman wearing a tuxedo in the photograph, Violette Morris, was an Olympic hopeful and professional auto racer before the French government revoked her license for cross-dressing in public. Hitler invited her to the Berlin Olympics as his special guest and she became a Nazi sympathizer and spy. Prose based Lou Villars on Morris. She uses various voices and tenses to tell the stories of Villars and others associated with the Chameleon Club including a Hungarian photographer, an actress turned Baroness who bankrolls his career, an American writer and a young woman writing Villars’s biography in present day.

“As a feminist historian, I should devote more attention to the role that breasts played in Lou’s psyche, to her gender dysphoria, her sexual confusion, her lifelong discomfort with the restrictive female role. But the subject becomes much simpler when I try to think as Lou did: her breasts would make her suffer and, in her worst fantasies, kill her.”

Despite the dreamy Paris locale, the characters encounter various challenges in their personal and professional lives. Forbidden passions, impending war, questionable patriotism and sense of self. It’s carefully crafted and strikingly written. I adore the concept. Amazing, yet not, having read several of her novels, how Prose can so fluidly transition from one character’s voice to another’s and maintain the reader’s interest. Unfortunately it’s a bit too drawn out at parts and I grew interested in some characters more than others so it lagged a bit.

RATING: ***1/2/ 5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

purchase at Amazon: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel

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