31 December 2014

The Other Side of Paris with Francine Prose.

I’ve been a fan of Francine Prose for some time. She writes with clarity and intelligence, and always directly to the reader. She bases stories on the downfallen, the marginalized, the supernatural and the unnatural, never with a heavy hand, and she gives them all a face we recognize. Sympathetic without hyper-sentimentality.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club. Paris 1932, my holiday reading and the last of my 2014 book reviews, is no exception. Based on interconnected characters during the days leading into World War II, she realizes their stories through fictionalized letters, a supposedly published memoir, and personal narratives, narratives that contradict now and then to suggest unreliability, and while she drops many hints at what will come, one is compelled to read on to find out how this strange story plays out.

The core character, Lou Villars, is based on an infamous femme fatale named Violette Morris, a lesbian car racer and cross-dresser who was tapped by the Nazi’s to interrogate resistance members, some of whom were her cohorts at the Chameleon Club, one of those outrageous night haunts where there were no inhibitions and anything went. Lou found herself a community there, but was subsequently disillusioned by the French government’s refusal of her professional driver’s license, because she wore men’s clothes. She had been a javelin thrower and runner, and, ostensibly, Hitler admired her prowess so much he invited her to the 1936 Olympics and she was thus easily seduced to the dark side. Did she turn her back on those who had taken her in when she was desperate to release her inner self?

Francine Prose

Among the scintillating cast is a hyper-sexualized, self-impressed writer named Lionel, modeled, according to previous reviews, on Henry Miller, and an idealistic Hungarian photographer based on Brassai. And an aristocratic woman, her gay husband and fascist brother, who come to Lou's aid, and serve as patron to the photographer. Add an assortment of strivers and believers, in all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations, who make their way in a Paris struggling with "unemployment, inflation, mass bankruptcy, immigration, a crushing national debt, an increasing tax roll, and a diminishing tax base, political scandal, poverty, a shrinking middle class..." Sound familiar?

There is unrequited love, manipulative love, true love and promiscuity, all of which represent Paris before the German invasion, and because Prose alters voices and style from chapter to chapter, the narrative is consistently interesting. Every character in some way struggles with commitment - to purpose, family, lovers, sexual identity and country - the novel is thoroughly engaging and strikes truth. 

I believe it was a sleeper this year, much overlooked for more sensationalized works. If you enjoy the bizarre and the contemplative, and never tire of reading about Paris, this is a novel worth your time. A good, curl up with novel. And talk about it with friends. The best kind. 

Available in hardcover, but coming soon in paperback, and of course for all e-readers.
Happy new year. Happy reading.

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