In 1932, French law prohibited women from wearing more than five items of men’s clothing at any one time. Those who flaunted the Napoleonic ruling were subject to arrest — a problem for Louisianne Villars, a celebrated, cross-dressing, lesbian race car driver and the focus of Francine Prose’s riveting and complex novel. The Villars in Lovers at the Chameleon Club is fictional but her character is based on real-life Violette Morris who, like Lou, ultimately turned on her country and both spied and tortured for the Nazis.
The French call the period between wars “the crazy years” and Prose captures it well. Through a changing chorus of voices that rotate through the story like spokes on a wheel, she traces Villars’ sad trajectory from heroine to spurned lover to traitor amid the despair, sleaze and hedonism that pervades Paris.
The novel is firmly grounded in reality. The book title, taken from a famous photo of Lou and a lover, is based on an actual black and white called “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle 1932.” One supporting characters is loosely based on the Hungarian photographer who took the real-life photo; another is a provocative American writer akin to Henry Miller. Love, loyalty and evil are all pieces of this haunting tale, so realistically told that you almost feel you’re in the City of Lights watching the darkness advance.