Mumsnet sent me a copy of Villa America for review. Villa America is a work of fiction based on historical fact; all of the characters bar one existed in real life, and the majority of events described in the book really happened.
The book is set at the beginning of the 20th century and follows the lives of Sara and Gerald Murphy. They met and married young in New York, and after the First World War moved to Paris before moving again to the Riviera where they bought and renovated a home and called it Villa America.
This is the story of an era that saw the Murphys entertaining many guests who haves since become massively famous, synonymous with that certain period in history. F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda; Ernest Hemingway; Cole and Linda Porter; Pablo Picasso; John Dos Passos. The Murphys were in fact the inspiration for the Diver characters in Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night – though they weren’t particularly pleased with their likenesses.
There is one character in this book who is a work of fiction; a young pilot named Owen Chambers. At first, when I read about the book before reading it, I thought it was an outrage that Klaussmann had dared not only to add a made-up character to the story, but to have Gerald Murphy have a homosexual affair with him… but actually, it’s an amazing story. Gerald Murphy remained happily married to Sara, but did struggle with his sexuality and I suppose it is entirely possible he could have had an affair. I love the imagination involved; Klaussmann read the story of a party held in Hemingway’s honour, hosted by the Murphys with caviar from the Caspian Sea that they had gotten a pilot to fly in for them – and jumped on that idea of an unknown pilot to create an entire person. The character is so well developed, if you didn’t know he was made up you would be looking him up on Wikipedia.
This book is the story of the family’s time spent at Villa America; their relationships with the people around them, the parties they threw, the trips they took. It captures perfectly the era of the roaring twenties, with the parties, the drinking (especially that of Fitzgerald), the lifestyle – but also the other side of it. The lengths to which the adults went, to entertain children, with make believe battles between tin soldiers, treasure hunts and trips out to see a lighthouse manned by fairies.
Of course, everyone knows that the roaring twenties ended with financial collapse. At the same time the people who had frequented Villa America moved back to the States (or to Communist Russia, in Dos Passos’s case).
The problem with historical novels like this is that fiction is entwined with fact, and you don’t know where each ends and the other begins. A lot of the things in the book really happened, and Klaussmann has done a lot of research, in many cases using lines from real letters in the letters she reproduces in the book. But of course, the larger part of the book is a work of fiction. For example: there is a scene in the book where Fitzgerald, drunk, throws several champagne glasses out the window of Villa America before hitting a fellow dinner guest – this really happened, but of course we have no way of knowing if the dialogues surrounding this event were the saem as we read in the book. If you can keep this in mind while reading the book, and not allow yourself to take the story too seriously in terms of exact historical accuracy, it’s an amazing book.
This is not a small book; at 461 pages with an additional 7 page author’s note, the hardback is something of a dead weight to be carrying around with you – but there was no part of it that I felt did not belong in the book; nothing that could have been cut. Apart from various letters, the story is always told by a narrator, but from various different perspectives, which makes it a really interesting story. For me, this was that rarest of things: a book you cannot put down. Even when it’s heavy enough that it hurt my hands to read it at the bus stop – I still couldn’t put it down and even found myself reading it while wandering between train platforms in Southampton the other day. I was completely engrossed in the story. It’s not a thriller; there is no dramatic unveilling of a killer or other “bad guy” – it’s just a story of some people, of a certain time in their lives. And I love it for that. I love that Klaussmann researched a story and imagined an entire new person to join the story – but didn’t feel the need to sensationalise it by going over the top with it. Instead, it just becomes even more of a love story than it already was.
This book is fantastic; I loved it and would recommend it to anyone who loves a good story – whether you’re familiar with the names in the book or not.
Thanks for reading.