She sounds too good to be true: a French spear-throwing, male-boxing, "cross-dressing lesbian torturer-spy" who worked for the Nazis and underwent an elective double mastectomy — to better fit behind the wheel of a race car.
Yet Lou Villars, the star lover of Francine Prose's Parisian Chameleon Club, is based on a real woman, Violette Morris.
But that's about all we know to be incontrovertibly true in Prose's latest provocative, powerful novel crawling with chameleons for characters who shift not only sartorially and sexually but also politically and culturally.
The story of Lou's fall from feisty yet forlorn girl to sadistic traitor is told by a half-dozen unreliable narrators of myriad colors, stripes and swirls: a struggling Hungarian fine-art photographer, his similarly struggling American writer friend, their shared French (female) lover, her biographer grand-niece, the photographer's wealthy baroness of a patron and the titular club's chameleon-stroking Hungarian proprietress. Their letters and book chapters combine into a fractured, fungible picture of not just Lou but the City of Light in its prewar heat and German-occupied darkness. (No wonder Picasso and Matisse pop up from time to time.)
Prose brilliantly mines the squishy terrain of truthiness explored by everyone from Keats to Kurosawa to Colbert, the "smudge along the line between truth and fiction," as the photographer, Gabor, puts it.
But if Prose's themes are shaded with nuance, her prose is pen-and-ink precise. A cathedral spire from Lou's childhood "pointed heavenward, poking God so he wouldn't forget the tiny town huddled beneath it." The red tracery on yellow tulips in a park: "Who had given the flowers these capillaries filled with blood?" Along the Seine, "every bridge is a pirate's plank the lover walks at his own peril."
Truth and beauty fling "themselves in front of Gabor's lens," yet another narrator observes. But the metaphor could extend to Prose's pages themselves, which flip along into a decoupaged denouement — and a reveal as return-worthy as that other recent novel about the slipperiness of truth and beauty and war and history, Atonement.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
By Francine Prose
Harper, 436 pp.
3½ stars out of four