I was sent a copy of Villa America by Lisa Klaussmann to review, and what I didn’t realise when I started reading is that this is a work of fiction based very strongly on fact. It wasn’t until certain names began to appear in the book that I realised that this isn’t just a novel!
The front cover made me think of Mad Men – the man looks a bit like Don, doesn’t he? But this story is based in a period long before the Mad Men era, 1898 until 1928. The story begins when the main characters are children and they each have somewhat less than ideal, carefree, childhoods. Maybe that’s what eventually draws them to each other? I’m not sure, and as the book progresses their early lives seem to have less and less of an influence on their adulthood. Rob read this book ahead of me and insisted that the brief chapters of the characters’ lives as children are unnecessary. I’m not sure; I think when you understand where a person has been, you can allow them successes and happiness a bit more.
The main characters of the flamboyant couple Sara Wiborg and Gerald Murphy are credited with inventing the idea of going to the beach for fun, and sunbathing, and also of turning the French Riviera into a year-round destination. The book tells of their crazy lifestyle and decadence, which drew the likes of Picasso, Ernest Hemmingway, and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald to them.
There is one person in this book who is not based on fact – Owen, the young pilot who Klausmann has invented with great flair. His appearance in the Murphy’s lives has a big impact; Owen is a homosexual, and the questions over Gerald’s sexuality are louder than ever when they go for a flight in one of Owen’s planes. As I read this book and began to realise it has been vividly researched and is based on fact, I couldn’t help to wonder what Sara and Gerald would have thought about this representation of themselves. Would they have welcomed this element or would they have slammed it as slanderous? It is hard to know what is fact and which is fiction as you read; unless you’re familiar with the people in the novel, I’m not sure you’d know. You don’t need to know anything of the famous people of the era to enjoy this book at all, though having a bit of knowledge does help to draw imagery to mind as you read.
I enjoyed this tale. It brought to mind The Great Gatsby, with the fantastic parties and wild living, as well as the sunshine and beauty of the French Riviera. What leaps off the page is the love the Murphy’s had for each other, despite any outsiders intentions to usurp the couple. The story begins with a dark foreshadow, so you know that it won’t all be plain sailing for the pair, or Owen, from the get-go.
Fortunately it ends brightly, and I think Villa America by Lisa Klaussmann is a fabulous telling of a crazy period in history with its wild wild highs and then shocking lows.