Booked Up

Paris When It Sizzled

Francise Prose’s new novel captures the romance and decadence of the City of Light in 1930s.

By - May 30th, 2014 11:01 am
Francine Prose

Francine Prose

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, the new novel by Francine Prose, is like a delectable meal at a five-star restaurant, from the amuse-bouche to the heady, post dessert nightcap. Ms. Prose is an experienced novelist and essayist, but here she has accomplished a new feat of magic. The story, set primarily in the “City of Light” and its colorful environs, is an intoxicating puzzle narrated by half a dozen wildly different characters. It’s up to the reader to decide what is true and whom to believe, as the plot unfolds and refolds in on itself.

Ostensibly excerpts from the many memoirs, diaries, and letters of the principal characters, the novel is beautifully written in the voices of the diverse crowd of bohemians who congregate around the infamous cross-dressers night club of the title. Decadence drips from every page, along with lots of name dropping, as Ms. Prose conjures the Paris of legend. It is a tribute to her artistry that she so often exceeds our own imaginings.

Because Paris of the ‘20s and ‘30s is such a commonly recreated milieu, the success Ms. Prose achieves is nothing short of phenomenal. The wild parties, bizarre characters (both real and imagined), and the beauty of the city are all etched in highly evocative detail. Because several points of view are expressed, we see the metropolis through a variety of eyes, which makes the tricks of imagination all the more delightful.

Much of the story’s action centers on the notorious lesbian and cross-dresser, Lou Villars. An orphan, raised by an unscrupulous nun and her con-man brother, Lou wants love and acceptance that she only finds for short periods, often from unworthy sources. Her descent into fascist obsession leads to the horrors of Nazi collaboration, an anomaly that all the other characters struggle to understand.

Lou and her greatest love are immortalized by the Hungarian photographer, Gabor Tsenyi, in a famous image of the denizens of the Chameleon Club. This picture returns throughout the story to haunt and fascinate the witnesses. Gabor’s friend, Lionel Maine, is a Hemingway type, living off others while feeding his oversized ego. The lovely artist’s model, Suzanne Dunois, comes between the men and gives another woman’s view of Lou’s tragic story. Completing the main cast is the rich, former film star, Baroness Lily de Rossignol, whose largess comes at a price.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

We all know the indignities suffered by the French during the Nazi occupation. Here we get first-hand impressions from our fictional witnesses, who must make the decision to either resist or collaborate. The drama of the book peaks at this point and enlightens our understanding of the period. While poetic license is taken with some of the facts, I don’t think most readers will be bothered.

There are surprises for even the most informed of readers in this presentation of the start of World War II. Americans often have trouble understanding the trauma of a country falling to an aggressive enemy. After you read this novel, you may have a much better idea of the horrors of war and the temptations of collaboration as a means of survival. Ms. Prose is masterful at putting us in the shoes of her colorful cast as they navigate the dangers of Nazi occupation.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club is a long and often complicated story, but it reads so smoothly you’re engrossed all the way to its modern-day coda. If you don’t know much about this period, you will come away with a new appreciation for the struggles of the past. If you know the times well, you may feel like you’ve been given fresh eyewitness insights. It would be hard to ask any more of historical fiction.


Upcoming Book Events:

Sunday, June 1 (2:00 PM): Poetry Workshop Opening Reading by Bhanu Kapil at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001 $5-$8 admission.

Monday, June 2 (2:00-7:30 PM) through Thursday, June 5 (2:00-5:00 PM, T-Th): Poetry Workshop with Bhanu Kapil, writer-in-residence at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, 2145 W. Brown Deer Road in Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by Woodland Pattern Book Center. Fee: $250/$225 for members of Lynden or Woodland Pattern (one discount only). Register online at

Tuesday, June 3 (7:00 PM): Reading by Joël Dicker, author of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-118. Co-sponsored by Alliance Française de Milwaukee.

Thursday, June 5 (7:00 PM): Free Poetry Workshop Reading & Celebration at the Lynden Sculpture Garden.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at And good reading!

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