How does one begin to describe this book?
Some stories are easy to summarize. This one not so much. Perhaps the best way to describe it is:
It is a little bit of everything and then a little bit more.
Francine Prose takes on a daring task in this book, a fictional examination of the life of a real-life character, Violette Morris (renamed in the book as Lou Villars). And what a character she was.
An athlete. A race car driver. A cross-dressing lesbian. A traitor to her country. One invited by Hitler to attend the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A spy for the Nazis.
And to complicate matters further, Prose takes the reader through a whirlwind of sources.
There is the photographer Gabor Tsenyi who writes to his parents in Hungary. American Lionel Maine, Gabor’s friend, writing a memoir of his Parisian life. Another memoir by a baroness, Gabor’s patron. And one by Gabor’s wife. Then a biography of Lou Villars by the neurotic Nathalie Dunois who says she is distantly related to Gabor’s wife. So with a use of published and unpublished material, letters and memoirs, some reflecting on past events, others talking about what just recently occurred to them. Who do we believe? Selective memory. Unreliable narrators.
Prose was inspired to write about the life of Violette Morris after she saw the photograph in which she is featured: “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932” by Brassai. I love knowing that. To think that the mere viewing of a photograph at a museum show, wondering who this woman was, could lead to Prose researching Morris’ vibrant, vicious life, and eventually create this awe-inspiring, extraordinary book.
Prose’s eye for the details never fails to impress. The terrarium of a chameleon (the club owner’s pet of course) isn’t complete without the tiny Greek statues and topiary (her previous chameleon had a Persian garden). The auto racer doesn’t just test-drive cars, he does so only at night, in women’s nighties. The highly vile prefect of police gets an “aggressively waxed” mustache.
And she doesn’t just bring 1930s Paris to life, she takes the reader straight into the club, the back lanes, the cafes, the seedy hotels, and we choke on all the smoke and the sweat, get drunk on the alcohol fumes, are dazzled by the lights, gasp at the Chameleon Show, and fall head over heels for this eccentric crew, their unique stories, unconventionally told.
An unforgettable story.
Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife and the New York Times bestsellerReading Like a Writer. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director’s Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in New York City.
I received this book for review from its publisher and TLC Book Tours
Check out the other tour stops:
Wednesday, April 23rd: BoundbyWords
Thursday, April 24th: Read Lately
Thursday, May 1st: All Things Girl
Monday, May 5th: BookNAround
Tuesday, May 6th: Ageless Pages Reviews
Monday, May 12th: The Written World
Tuesday, May 13th: A Chick Who Reads
Wednesday, May 14th: Booksie’s Blog
Thursday, May 15th: missris
Friday, May 16th: Olduvai Reads
Monday, May 19th: Reading Reality
Tuesday, May 20th: Bibliotica
Wednesday, May 21st: What She Read …
Thursday, May 22nd: Snowdrop Dreams of Books
Friday, May 23rd: Bibliophiliac