BookBrowse Reviews Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

by Francine Prose

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose X
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 448 pages
    May 2015, 448 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

Buy This Book

About this Book



Love, art, betrayal and storytelling itself are richly explored in Francine Prose's Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.

The wonder of Francine Prose's terrific historical novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, is how she takes inspiration from a work of visual art and builds, not just one story, not just one voice, but a kaleidoscope of voices and angles about individuals whose lives intersect at a particular time and place. The visual piece is a gelatin silver print by famed Hungarian photographer Brassai called "Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932." It shows two people having cocktails and cigarettes seated at a cabaret table. One is a woman in a diaphanous evening gown and the other is also a woman, but she is dressed in a tailored man's suit, shirt and necktie. It is perhaps as evocative of Paris during the Jazz Age as any picture and it has clearly evoked brilliance in this author.

The main character in Lovers is the mannish woman depicted in a similar, fictional photograph, Louisianne (Lou) Villars. Lou's story is told via excerpts taken from a divertingly amateurish biography penned by the niece of one of Lou's acquaintances.

Born in rural France with an athletic rather than "feminine" physique, Lou always feels out of place. Her parents send her to boarding school where she begins training for Olympic javelin throwing under the strict tutelage of a rather unsavory character who eventually exploits and molests her. She narrowly escapes and flees to a Paris nightclub called the Chameleon Club where owner Yvonne immediately welcomes her. The club is a bizarre microcosm of Parisian society's misfits, prostitutes, cross-dressers and malcontents where Lou checks coats, waits tables, even performs onstage. "She knew that…Yvonne had created this place for her and others like her; born into the wrong life, the wrong body, an innocent victim of God's mistake."

Among the people she encounters at the Chameleon Club is a young Hungarian photographer-sometimes-journalist named Gabor Tsenyi (modeled on real-life photographer Brassai) who tells his own story – his view of events – in the form of cloying, obsequious letters to his parents. He portrays himself as a dutiful son so his parents will keep sending him cash even though he's enjoying the nightlife and the whole counterculture scene. "I swear my only desire was to photograph Yvonne and her clientele. It was entirely about my art; the basis of your faith in me and your generous stipend, the tuition you are paying to what Papa calls the art school of life."

Prose brings in the voice of an expat American journalist Lionel Maine with excerpts from books he eventually publishes about those halcyon-turned-nightmarish days between the wars. Distinct from the others, Maine brings a rather more jaundiced eye to the craziness and its celebrants. When Gabor publishes a book of his photos Maine notes, "I might humbly suggest that one reason for his book's popularity is that Gabor has arranged the perfect union of serious art with the ever-beloved dirty French postcard."

And so the stories ensue with a medley of deliciously unreliable narrators told, by turns, in the unique voices of Yvonne and Gabor; of his patron, wealthy baroness Lily De Rossignol; of Lionel Maine; and of Gabor's wife, Suzanne and her niece, Lou's biographer. Honestly, Prose's writing is so striking in its own chameleon-like ability to adjust to the diverse points of view and voices that that quality alone makes this a worthwhile read. But she recreates a world that very nearly vibrates with the jazzy notes of a saxophone as Paris parties its way into occupation, assisted by the sad outcast Lou Villars.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in May 2014, and has been updated for the May 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Photographer Brassai

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Vita Nostra
    Vita Nostra
    by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
    Vita Nostra by Ukrainian authors Sergey and Marina Dyachenko is one of those novels that defies ...
  • Book Jacket: And The Ocean Was Our Sky
    And The Ocean Was Our Sky
    by Patrick Ness
    Patrick Ness has developed a reputation for experimental literature executed well, and his latest, ...
  • Book Jacket: Let It Bang
    Let It Bang
    by RJ Young
    Every interracial love story is an exercise in complications. R.J. Young and Lizzie Stafford's ...
  • Book Jacket: A Spark of Light
    A Spark of Light
    by Jodi Picoult
    The central premise of A Spark of Light involves a gunman holding hostages within the confines of a ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
by Barbara Kingsolver

A timely novel that explores the human capacity for resiliency and compassion.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    A Ladder to the Sky
    by John Boyne

    A seductive, unputdownable psychodrama following one brilliant, ruthless man.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Paris Echo
    by Sebastian Faulks

    A story of resistance, complicity, and an unlikely, transformative friendship.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Severance

Severance by Ling Ma

An offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic satire that is featured on more than twenty 2018 "Must Read" lists!


Word Play

Solve this clue:

I Ain't O U T F L S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.