Mumsnet were kind enough to send me Villa America, written by Liza Klaussmann, for review. When it arrived in the post my heart sank a little because on the cover is a pretty woman gazing up at a handsome man. Is this a Romance Novel? That’s not a genre I usually read. But reminding myself that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I read the blurb and was intrigued.
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Cole and Linda Porter, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos – all are summer guests of Gerald and Sara Murphy. Visionary, misunderstood, and from vastly different backgrounds, the Murphys met and married young, and set forth to create a beautiful world. They alight on Villa America: their coastal oasis of artistic genius, debauched parties, impeccable style and flamboyant imagination. But before long, a stranger enters into their relationship, and their marriage must accommodate an intensity that neither had forseen. When tragedy strikes, their friends reach out to them, but the golden bowl is shattered, and neither Gerald nor Sara will ever be the same.
The book starts in 1935 with the separate deaths of a man and a child. OK, that’s not what I was expecting, the tragedy mentioned on the cover strikes in the first paragraph? Is this setting the tone for a rather grim story? Determined not to let that put me off, I read on. The next chapter moves back to 1989 and a quite bleak story about a boy in a loveless home and his poor dog. Oh dear. Am I going to like this book? It’s not shaping up the way I expected. Where are the debauched parties and the beautiful world?
Those things do come, but there is quite a bit of scene-setting beforehand as we are introduced to the early lives of the main two characters, Sara and Gerald, how they meet and fall in love. There is the awful intervention of the First World War and eventually Sara and Gerald and their three children do move to southern France in the 1920’s. Here, life is wonderful. The author has drawn the most delightful pictures of the lives of this loving family who are wealthy enough that they don’t need to check in to day jobs. Instead their days are spent on the beach – the three children brown and naked, the adults and their artistic friends playing dress-ups, drinking sherry, surrounded by faithful servants and luxury, picnics, dinner parties, aeroplanes and chauffeurs.
Among their guests at the gorgeous Villa America that they’ve built in Antibes, are Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter and Pablo Picasso – and a myriad of other friends and relations. The author has constructed complex relationships between all these people (most of them are real and the author has drawn on letters and memoirs and books for research, others she has invented for the fiction) and I admit it was not easy for me to keep track of them all. There was a bit of flicking back and forth to earlier chapters to remind myself who some of them were and who was married to whom.
But what happens in the story? Well, we know from the first chapter who Death is hovering over. I approached the end of the book with a bit of dread, knowing who was going to die, but not wanting it to happen. I was very fond of one of the dead by the end of the book and his death was heart-breaking. The other one – well his story was never going to have a happy ending but O! how can life be so cruel!
Sara is lovely – no wonder most of the men in the book are in love with her. She’s a wonderful mother, loving devoted wife, intelligent household manager, elegant, adventurous, high-spirited and yet sensible and a believable character. Gerald has overcome his dreadful childhood and has fabulous relationships with his wife and children and finds expression in his intricate paintings of engines and precision watches. Together these two have created a haven at Villa America for their somewhat eccentric friends – the fights between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and between Ernest and Hadley Hemingway are terrible. It’s a haven for their own love as well. The tragedies that strike in the novel take place elsewhere.
As I was reading Villa America, I was thinking to myself that it’s a one-read novel; I’d give it away when I’ve finished it. But getting to the end, … I want to go back and read it again. There is great contrast shown between the gorgeous home and the beach and cozy family scenes and things that happen elsewhere such as the visit to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls. Here Sara and Gerald discover how the thrilling and arousing chase through the cobbled streets ends in the horrible and repugnant events in the Plaza del Toros.
If you like the writings of or about Hemingway or Fitzgerald, the musical brilliance of Cole Porter, the paintings of Picasso – this book will shine a little insight into their lives. But it’s not just historical, it is historical fiction, based on the lives of real people, but written as a complex tale of relationships, love, sadness, beauty, art, adventure. I do recommend it.
Would you like to read Villa America?
If you’d like to read this book, it is available from Amazon. Just click on the picture below and it will take you straight to the Amazon page.
Have you read this? What’s your favourite genre? Would you read this just based on the cover image alone?
Many thanks to Mumsnet and Picador for providing me with the book. As you would expect, all opinions are my own.