BookBrowse Reviews Villa America by Liza Klaussmann

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Villa America

A Novel

by Liza Klaussmann

Villa America by Liza Klaussmann X
Villa America by Liza Klaussmann
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2016, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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In her second novel, Liza Klaussmann explores the glittering, tragic lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the real-life inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night.

Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels and you might conjure up visions of extravagant Jazz-Age parties flowing with champagne and frivolity. Such scenes were inspired at least in part by a couple who were friends of the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways, Gerald and Sara Murphy. They lived at France's Cap d'Antibes and hosted lavish get-togethers at their home, Villa America.

Villa America is a fictional chronicle of several decades of the Murphys' lives and their interactions with their circle of writers and artists. Klaussmann's way into the Murphys' story comes through a fictional character that she created to fill a gap in the historical record. In 1926 Ernest Hemingway came to visit the Murphys and they threw him a huge party at a casino, even having a pilot fly in caviar from the Caspian Sea. Who was that nameless pilot? Klaussmann wondered. And so she invented Owen Chambers, a farm boy who grows up to be a fighter pilot in France during World War I and then becomes friends with the Murphys – a friendship that will eventually place strain on that marriage when he and Gerald strike up a secret romance.

The book starts slowly because the first third – devoted to Gerald's and Sara's childhoods and courtship – seems to have little bearing on the rest of the novel. Nevertheless, the letters they exchange during their separations are a highlight, as is the section where Gerald goes to Texas for military training and experiences a serious dust storm. However, it is not until the Murphys are established in France and receive visits from fellow artists – Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, and especially the Fitzgeralds – that the book really comes to life.

It is easy to see why the Murphys attracted hangers-on. Villa America is like a fantasy land where everything – even the "Black Service," as Gerald calls his occasional depression – seems rosy. Gerald strives "to build a beautiful castle, an idyll with high walls." He tells Sara: "The only world I want is the one we invent for ourselves." Despite their reputation for merry-making, the Murphys were also devoted parents, so stable that Zelda Fitzgerald says to Owen, "Don't you want them to adopt you? Scott and I do. They're so comforting." And, indeed, Fitzgerald appeared to adopt them as his models for the central couple in his fourth and final novel, Tender Is the Night (see 'Beyond the Book').

Yet beneath the façade of glamor, there is real sadness and struggle. Gerald's uncertain sexuality is a tacit issue between him and Sara, and sickness strikes the family with cruel precision. Correspondence from third parties covers the years 1930 to 1937, the worst time, when the Murphys were trying to hold it all together in the face of financial and medical disaster. The ending sets up a beautiful contrast between happiness and tragedy in the Murphys' lives. For example, a short final section entitled "What Was Found" remembers one of the best times: sailing together on the Riviera and setting up a pirate treasure hunt for the children.

Apart from its historical interest (the illuminating author's note gives Klaussmann's sources and hints at which of the wonderful letters in the novel are authentic and which are invented), this is a captivating portrait of a marriage in crisis: "Every couple had a dance, Sara knew, one that had to be performed when times got tricky." Klaussmann captures that marital dance precisely; her novel has all the atmosphere of carefree summer days on the Riviera, but equally capably shows what happens when seemingly perfect lives crumble.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2015, and has been updated for the June 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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