Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

chameleon

* CONTAINS SPOILERS

I was one of the lucky 25 recipients to receive a hard copy of Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose to read for the Afterword Reading Society. When I discovered the book was mostly set in Paris at the start of the Nazi Occupation, I felt almost at home as I had just escaped these cobblestone streets recently with the characters from Half-Blood Blues.

THE STORY

Over a span of 20 years, five characters account their lives in Paris prior to and during the Nazi Occupation in World War II, mostly with regards to their association with Lou Villars and The Chameleon Club. Lou is an infamous cross-dressing lesbian, failed athlete and race car driver who eventually becomes hired help for the Gestapo. The narrators include Gabor, a photographer who frequently fabricates details; Lily, the baroness who bankrolls Gabor’s life as an artist; Suzanne, Gabor’s girlfriend who has no clear role until the end of the book; Lionel, Gabor’s self-aggrandizing best friend who also has no clear role to me other than providing a brash American perspective of things; and Yvonne, The Chameleon Club’s owner. In addition, Nathalie Dunois (that’s right, there are six narrators in this story), who is Suzanne’s great-niece, is writing a biography on Lou Villars. While the other characters despise, mistrust and fear Lou, Nathalie sympathetically explores Lou’s life filled with abuse, misunderstanding and betrayal. However, as can be expected, with this many voices telling the same story, not everything is as it seems. Not everyone can agree on the little details of big events.

THE GOOD

I struggled with this book in the beginning because I didn’t understand why there were so many narrators. Not only that, I didn’t find any of them vaguely interesting. What did eventually grab my attention was Lou Villars, the gullible misfit of the story. Her life was full of action and romance, from her youth at a convent to a career in sports to her relationship with Paris gangsters and the Gestapo. I read that Francine Prose wrote the book based on the true-life story of Violette Morris, a successful French athlete who also worked for the Gestapo and was killed by the French Resistance.

THE BAD

Too many narrators! I understand now that the author’s intention was show the unreliability of multiple voices in the same story, but I didn’t care about most of those voices. They were just getting in the way of me finding out what was happening with Lou Villars. Also, when you have that many characters clamouring for your attention, it makes for a long book.

CONCLUSION

I know it sounds like I think the book was terrible. On the contrary, it was imaginatively written and with interesting intentions, and I would certainly read something by Francine Prose again. I was fascinated the most by Lou Villar’s story, but the whole time I couldn’t stop wishing the book had been written solely about her and in the first person. It was a wonderful opportunity to read with The Afterword Reading Society, but Lovers at the Chameleon Club was simply good and not great.

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10 Comments on “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose”

  1. Naomi says:

    I usually like a book with multiple narrators, but six sounds like too many. Did the setting have the same feel as Half Blood Blues?

    • The characters in Half-Blood Blues had left Berlin and had to mostly hide-out in Paris before eventually trying to escape when the Nazis arrived. However, both books have a scene where people are leaving Paris by every means possible whether foot, bicycle, cart, horse once the Nazis arrive.

  2. Priya says:

    I usually find it hard to read books with many narrators, few authors can pull it off – but if done well, it’s also kind of a well rounded look at the story. This sounds interesting, especially the setting!

    • Paris during the war and Nazi Occupation is certainly an interesting time in history. I don’t mind multiple narrators if it makes sense for the story and it can be pulled off effectively. I think I would have loved this story more if it was focused on one main character (in this case, Lou Villars) and even more so if written in the first person.

  3. writereads says:

    It’s too bad, Prose is a great writer (as you mention), but I’m hearing a few people say this book makes it very tough to engage with any of the characters and I’m a character girl when it comes to books. I hope you had a good time doing The Afterword Society stuff – Tania

    • What books have you read by Francine Prose? I think she’s a good writer and this was a good story, I just didn’t like the format. It was interesting doing The Afterword Reading Society, but may not rush to do it again. I had to answer these questions for them:

      Rate this book with a score between 0 and 100.
      I read Lovers at the Chameleon Club in ____sittings.
      What was better: the beginning or the ending?
      Who was your favourite character?
      Sum up this book in a Tweet (140 characters)
      If you like this book, you’ll like (name another book). Why?
      Who would you cast in the movie version?
      What’s a question you have for Francine?

  4. DoingDewey says:

    In general, it sounds as though this book hasn’t quite lived up to people’s expectations. It’s too bad because it seems like the core of the story had a lot of promise!

    • I would say that because of Francine Prose’s writing, I could see past what I annoyed me about the book and still appreciate what a great story she wrote. I did see reviews that praised the creativity and other reviews that had a hard time with the format as well.

  5. Lindsey says:

    I’m sorry this one didn’t work out for you.

    Thanks for your valiant cheering during the readathon!


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