Bookinista review: ‘Villa America’ brings Lost Generation to life
“Villa America,” by Liza Klaussmann, has something in common with late summer in Eagle County. There is much to enjoy in both. But preparing for winter in this valley can preoccupy residents, while distinguishing fact from fiction can distract readers of “Villa America.”
Fans of works by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald tend to read about the two authors. The 1920s were a fascinating decade in which artistic talent flourished in larger-than-life ways. In this context, Sara and Gerald Murphy are familiar. “Villa America” focuses on the Murphys and their raucous, tragic years as hosts extraordinaire at Villa America on the French Riviera.
The Robin Monopoly
One day, writers will realize that starlings and some finches also lay blue eggs. Until then and despite the cliche, the novel starts well.
“The sky was as blue as a robin’s egg on the afternoon they pulled Owen Chambers’ body out of the Baie des Anges.”
Chambers is an invented character and possibly an unnecessary one. Artist Pablo Picasso, author John Dos Passos, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, gossip columnist Dorothy Parker and the evolving Hemingway triangle (Ernest, Hadley and Pauline at this point) populate the pages of “Villa America.” They lived vigorously as part of the Lost Generation, world-class artists and writers. With so much historic genius from which to choose, author Klaussmann’s invention of Chambers appears to do little more than sensationalize Gerald Murphy’s sexual identity, which is rumored to have been conflicted.
While “Villa America” is reminiscent of “Tender Is the Night” (Fitzgerald), “A Paris Wife” (Paula McLain) and “A Moveable Feast” (Hemingway), the author’s descriptive prose about the Riviera envelops. She sets the stage against an environment of sweet mimosas, rocky shorelines and nightingale songs. This idyllic backdrop contrasts with the drama and passion unfolding along the Mediterranean coast.
Klaussmann weaves a large cast in ways that keep each member distinct and depicts the Murphy children with lively tenderness. She crafts the family so well that it is easy to care about the tragedies at the end of the book.
And by starting “Villa America” with the Murphys unexplored early years, she shares episodes that could explain some of the peculiarities of their adulthood: Gerald’s emotional distance and Sara’s heroic sturdiness. Unfortunately, liberties with other aspects of the story make it hard to separate fiction from fact.
Summer of the Expat Novel
Like “Circling the Sun” by McLain, “Villa America” is a work of fiction based on historic characters. Both books embroider the lives of expatriates between the world wars. Released within weeks of each other, comparisons between the books are inevitable. One of the most obvious is that “Circling the Sun” sticks close to established, entertaining fact, whereas “Villa America” swings further afield in unnecessary ways — although the story is an entertaining one.
“Villa America,” published by Little, Brown and Co., is available at The Bookworm of Edwards. Little, Brown and Co. also released Klaussmann’s first book, “Tigers in Red Weather,” in 2012.
Vail Valley local NLB Horton (NLBHorton.com) is the author of two successful works of international suspense, “When Camels Fly” and “The Brothers’ Keepers.” Both are available at The Bookworm of Edwards and at other booksellers, and her third book will be released in 2016.