A trend in current fiction is to present the same story from various points of view, which is what Francine Prose does in this fine novel. Some authors use this technique to present contradictory versions of events, but that is not, for the most part, what Prose does here. Instead, her various narrators each add to what the others have to say until the shape of her story becomes clear (at least until the end). And each of those narrators is an interesting character, well-drawn and having a distinctive voice.
The story revolves around Lou Villars. Lou, Louisianne is her full name, is a ten-year old child when we meet her. Her parents send her away to school, where a num notices her athletic ability. Soon, the nun finds a trainer for her and Lou travels about giving athletic exhibitions, even boxing against men. When one day, her trainer attempts to rape her, Lou runs away, ending up at the Chameleon Club, where she works her way up until she is playing a sailor who saves a drowning mermaid. Before long, Lou and her mermaid partner are lovers. The she becomes a race-car driver and, later still, she meets Hitler and becomes an informer for the Nazis. During the occupation, she becomes a very successful torturer for the Gestapo, with an uncanny ability to extract information using only a cigarette lighter. Other important characters are Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer living in Paris, his lover and later wife, Suzanne, an acerbic ex-pat American writer named Lionel Maine, and Baroness Lily de Rossignol, Gabor’s patron and wife of Baron Rossignol, whose firm manufactures the cars Lou longs to race, as well as Nathalie Dunois, Lou Villars’s biographer who says she is Suzanne’s niece. The Chameleon Club of the title, by the way, is a haven for the cross-dressing crowd, and peculiar things seem to happen there.
Writers and readers don’t ever seem to get enough of Europe, especially Paris, where Prose’s work takes place, roughly between about 1932 and 1944. Prose has recreated Paris’s demi-monde with an incredible vitality and realism. The sad fate of so many unhappy women and men has seldom if ever been so well done. A fine and exciting read though with a surprise ending that makes readers question much of what they thought they knew about the characters, especially Lou and Nathalie, and their lives.
For those who are interested in such things, at least two of the characters seem to be modeled on historical persons: Lou Villars is said to be modeled on Violette Morris, a lesbian living in Paris around the time, who, like Lou Villars, underwent a double mastectomy, and Lionel Maine is said to be modeled on Henry Miller. Prose is also historically accurate in documenting the anti-Semitism in France between the wars.