Paris in the years leading up to WWII had a giddy, frenetic feel to it and that sense of grabbing life around the neck was nowhere more evident than at The Chameleon Club, where men dressed as women and women dressed as men. People came to the club to listen to the owner, Yvonne, croon about her long dead sailor and to let their hair down, free to be themselves as they could nowhere else. And the club is the place that the narrative circles back to again and again, a place that all the characters have been too and that some know intimately.
Narrated by multiple characters in multiple ways (letters, essays from the time, published and unpublished memoirs written later, and a biography written in the present), the novel swirls around the person of Lou Villars. Although Lou is not always the central character in the narrations, her presence and her ultimate war crimes, which are made clear in the very beginning of the novel, are the threads that connect all the players together. Lionel Main is an American writer who is searching for fame as he writes (and embellishes or even makes up out of whole cloth) about a decadent Paris for readers at home. Gabor Tsenyi is the Hungarian photographer who snaps an iconic picture of Lou in a tuxedo with her lover Arlette in a fancy party dress while sitting at the Chameleon's bar. Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi is Gabor's ever tolerant girlfriend and ultimately his wife. Baroness Lily de Rossignol is a frigid but wealthy woman who bankrolls Gabor's photography and employs Lou as a race car driver for her gay husband and his brother's brand of French cars. And finally Nathalie Dunois is a teacher in the present who is writing a biography of Lou Villars called The Devil Drives, humanizing and even identifying with this woman who has been so demonized for her role in Nazi Occupied France that her life is rarely, if ever, spoken of.
Telling the story of Lou's life from childhood through her impressive athletic displays as a young woman and on into the disappointments and betrayals of her adulthood, this novel seeks to understand the genesis of evil. Does Lou become an informer and torturer because of her upbringing? Does she become open to evil because of the way that life and the people in it maltreat and take advantage of her? Or is it something else, the seed of which has always been in her? How could a French patriot who venerated Joan of Arc willingly collaborate with the Nazis? Lou never narrates her own story and so despite all the evidence, we cannot fully know. The other characters, who do narrate, explain not only what they knew of Lou but also their own lives in that increasingly ominous time before the war and the decisions that led them to their roles during the war. All of the narrators are contemporaneous with Lou except for Nathalie Dunois, her biographer, who becomes less and less reliable as the book progresses.
Each of the different modes of narration and the different narrators widen the tale with their overlapping observations, making this an incredibly nuanced read. The beginning of the novel, as the reader is meeting each of the characters in the story, and there are many beyond just the narrators, can be a bit overwhelming but once they are all in place, the story starts to race along to the inevitable conclusion, and one that the reader knows from the outset. The journey to that end is definitely worth the ride as the stories tell and retell, expanding on each other as Lou's decisions, desires, and even sometimes her naivety push her ever closer to the wrongheaded justifications she will use to excuse her participation in evil. Prose is a masterful writer and she manages to keep all her balls in the air with this complicated and unusual novel.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.