In the years before WWII, an unlikely collection of artists, industrialists, transvestites, homosexuals, and entertainers find their lives connected through Lou Villars, a cross-dressing lesbian athlete turned nightclub performer turned (eventually) something far worse.
Prose’s novel takes the form of a collection of personal narratives, coming together to roughly tell the story of Lou Villars. The photographer Gabor Tsenyi frequently mentions her exploits in letters home to his parents in which he usually asks for more money. His wife Susanne mentions her in her unpublished memoirs, as does his principal patron the Baroness Lily de Rossignol. The American expatriate Lionel Maine finds himself supporting his literary efforts by covering Lou’s careers for the newspapers back home. And in the most extensive passages, Susanne’s grand-niece attempts to write a biography of Lou despite the limited availability of primary documents.
Who is Lou Villars to warrant such extensive discussion? She is a trained athlete who turns to performing at the Chameleon Club after her Olympic hopes are dashed. She is one half of the lesbian couple portrayed in Gabor Tsenyi’s famous photograph with the same name as the title of the book. She is a employee of the Rossignol Motors corporation, hired to improve the brand’s reputation by driving their cars to victory in women’s auto races across Europe. She is a woman shunned by her native France because of her illegal cross-dressing and then embraced by Germany, attending the 1936 Olympics as a special guest of the Fuhrer. She is a Nazi spy and one of their best interrogators and torturers of captured members of the French resistance.
Now, if you’re like me that all sounds a bit too improbable, even for the realm of literary fiction. Indeed, about 300 pages in, I was so tired of the increasing unlikeliness of this plot that I decided to look at the Amazon reviews to see why the novel had such good reviews. It was there that I discovered that the plot of this novel is actually based on a real person who more or less did everything the fictional Lou Villars is purported to have done. I suppose that shows me, but in some ways I still feel justified. Truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction has to make sense, as someone once said. Regardless of the “real” story, it’s still hard to buy into this novel’s premise.
The fractured narrative employed by Prose does give you a sense of a larger world, and structurally it is impressive how she uses the different perspectives to shade the events of the novel in several different ways. Still, the fact that Lou herself does not get a chance to tell her own version of the story leaves big hole in the center of the book that remains unfilled to the end. In fact, near the end Prose makes what I consider to be an indefensible choice that insults her readers and renders the time spent reading the novel wasted. No spoilers, but caveat lector.