Christmas came early for me last week, when a friend who works in publishing sent over a massive haul of books. I was genuinely excited to be handed all these words on a plate and only after counting the number of books (10) did I realise I had quite a task ahead of me.
I picked the first book at random, and it was Villa America. I vaguely read the back, saw it was something to do with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night’ and got stuck in.
The writing reminded me a little of the Elizabeth Jane Howard ‘Cazalet chronicles’, in the way that each conversation is recorded in minute detail and each detail given to the reader on a plate. Frankly, it’s not my favourite type of writing in that sense, I prefer to be given an idea of something and make up my own mind about it, but Klaussman has used this method to good effect, giving all the characters clear voices from the beginning.
It’s obvious Klaussman did intensive research in to the two main characters in this semi-biography type novel, as Gerald and Sara Murphy were high flyers in American society in the 1920’s. Being great friends with the other movers and shakers of that time, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway to name two, they lived a seemingly charmed life. They built a house on the French Rivera called Villa America, hence the name of the novel, where they held sparkling parties and entertained the great and the good. Klaussmann has used artistic licence to create characters designed to explore the more hidden qualities of them both and in this sense Gerald especially seems more of a fictional character than Sara.
There’s something very alluring about that era of decadence, and I associate it with champagne, artists, sexual freedom and beaded dresses, and in that way, this book doesn’t disappoint.
Klaussmann describes life on the Riviera in an alluring and seductive way, conjuring up bays of deserted beaches and long, hot afternoons spent in the shade, enjoying extended cocktail hours. But there’s a dark side to all of this, namely in the fragile mental health of a lot of the characters the Murphy’s’ entertain in their idyll. Their life crashes around them in a well documented way and this is where the book also seems to crumble. We’re snatched away from minute detail of their lives and suddenly only given letters between some of the more external characters to piece together the tragedies that unfold. It’s an odd transition and rather unsatisfying. But credit to Klaussmann, she’s used real letters from the real people to do this and has tried to pad the rest out with her own imagination, but for me it means that her book rather loses its way.
In summary, this novel is a homage to The Murphy’s sparkling life and subsequent tragedies padded out with fiction and make believe. It was an enjoyable, if rather laborious read and as such, rather forgettable.