* 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.