Reinventing oneself may seem a common modern pastime, but in her second novel, Liza Klaussman deftly and self-reflexively explores invention as a careful art in life and fiction. The author of British National Book Award winner Tigers in Red Weather, Klaussmann has fictionalized the lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy, illustrious American expats central to the 1920s arts and literature movements in Paris and Cap d’Antibes, where they built their fabled home Villa America.
“The only world I want is the one we invent for ourselves,” Gerald implores Sara in one of his courtship letters. “I want something entirely of our own creation. I’ve felt inauthentic for most of my life and I want to be finished with that.’” This is just one true and significant detail to which this careful historical novel is pinned, as it follows the Murphys from 1898 and their lonely childhoods through snapshots of their time during the war, life in France with three children and eventual move back to the U.S. around 1937.
But Klaussman also injects this increasingly captivating life story with a parallel, pivotal character of her own creation who is inspired by a real yet unknown pilot who once flew in caviar for a party the Murphys threw for Ernest Hemingway. The emotionally and verbally economical American pilot Owen Chambers is just the foil Klaussman and the novel need to unpack exactly how contrived the Murphys’ marriage and family life were — and what people truly thought about Gerald’s questionable sexual orientation.
Weaving the story of three intertwined lives is tricky, and the narrative dawdles a bit at the beginning as Klaussman luxuriates in the trio’s early lives, even as such a thorough account of personalities and relationships sets the novel on solid footing. Klaussman shows her dexterity as the story develops, and she delivers this tale not only in prose but also letters, and not only through the viewpoints of Sara, Gerald and Owen, but also many others drawn into the Murphys’ intimate circle, including Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Linda Porter, Cole Porter’s wife. This impressive legerdemain creates a prism-like view of the couple, rendering them all the more vibrant.
The story of Sara and Gerald’s marriage is at once enchanting and troubling. But when the parties start up at Villa America, the novel becomes a vicarious guilty pleasure, especially for readers who love seeing the era’s artists and writers brought to such animated life, witnessing Picasso’s uber masculinity, Hemingway’s toughness or the Fitzgeralds’ hijinks. Klaussman wrote her thesis on Tender is the Night, which is dedicated to the Murphys and arguably based on them; Fitzgerald’s novel inspired Klaussman to write Villa America. Unsurprisingly, Scott and Zelda at times rival the Murphys for center stage.
But to Owen, newcomer and outsider, the Murphys’ pageantry and all those who adore them are alluring — and off-putting. Chambers views the whole scene as “people who courted complication, who made a life — made a religion really — out of their confusion,” even as he finds it impossible to resist and alters the Murphys’ lives. Sara and Gerald were the sort of people who knew everyone and whom everyone loved, for better or worse. Villa America allows the 21st century reader to become addicted to them, too.
Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.