“Ernest’s work was good, it was fresh and new. And Scott wanted the world to know that. But that didn’t mean they had to love Ernest more.” –every writer ever, fully agreeing with F. Scott Fitzgerald
Villa America is a beautiful, beautiful book, inside and out. The cover immediately caught my eye when I first saw it in that fateful Shelf Awareness newsletter, and once I’d read the synopsis, I was overjoyed to see that I could request a galley to read and review. And it did not disappoint.
Villa America follows Gerald and Sara Murphy, the glittering couple who, in part (and much to their chagrin) inspired the Divers in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. The Murphys were American ex-pats who hobnobbed with the likes of the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and basically anybody who was was anybody in 1920s Paris, and their home on the French Riviera — Villa America — became a center of beautiful people, late-night parties, and enough drama to last any person a lifetime.
The book delves, first, into the past of both Sara and Gerald, who became friends while summering in the Hamptons as children and later fell in love. Sara was a bit older (and, arguably, wiser) than Gerald, and very quickly became the jewel of both their personal lives and the very public lives they led with their fancy friends. Meanwhile, Gerald struggled with a rather lonely childhood and potentially damning secrets, all while keeping a happy face for his beloved wife and children, for his art, and for the friends who arrived at their summer villa for sunset cocktails, fine food, and cultural conversation.
Things get even harder when the Murphys befriend an American pilot, Owen Chambers, who was forced out of life on his small farm and, miraculously, survived World War I as a fighter pilot on the front lines. He falls under the spell of them both, and they both love him back, though things get especially, deeply intimate between Owen and Gerald.
This book could very easily have become #whitepeopleproblems, as, yes, every person in it is rich, white, and arguably living the high life. But the characters are so well drawn and full of life, your heart truly breaks for them. Owen is one of the only purely fictional characters, added, as the author explains in her afterword, to help fill in some holes in the narrative of the Murphys’ lives. So it was fascinating to see the psychology behind these “real” people, even if they were only characters in a novel and even if it’s all from Klaussmann’s imagination. I knew little about Sara and Gerald Murphy going into this, and would love to read more about them. But for a couple like the Fitzgeralds, who are always portrayed as beautiful and tragic, there’s something much sadder here, and more vibrant, almost more real than the legends that have sprung up around them and the time of the Lost Generation. You desperately want to see all of these people by happy, and you truly believe they might just be able to achieve that happiness, even if you know (or Googled) how their story will end.
There are stunning details here of both the places and the people of the early twentieth century, both in America and abroad. These details serve to, again, bring new life to characters that we’ve already seen in other books, or on screen, or in biographies of their real lives. Klaussmann captures the rhythm of the speech of the time, the playfulness and headiness, and it all combines to help build a real sense of time and place. It’s the kind of book you can get truly lost in, a book that will make you miss train stops. I didn’t want it to end, even as I hurried to read and read and read it, because I needed more about the Murphys and their circle.
That all said, I would say that this one dragged a bit in parts. Perhaps there is such a thing as “too much fun,” as the party scenes did become a bit tedious. And for the characters, I hesitate to describe Scott or Zelda Fitzgerald’s descents into depression as “boring,” but their wild lives did sometimes threaten to overshadow — even overtake — the lives of the Murphys. It was Sara and Gerald’s story (and, by extension, Owen’s), and I think it would have been nice to keep them more squarely in the spotlight, even as the plot drifted into the sparkle of the infamous.
Though the book is likened to The Paris Wife, I felt more of a connection to — and care for — these people than I did for Hadley Hemingway. Hadley’s life became ridiculously hard as her relationship with Hemingway crumbled, but she seemed so disconnected from everything, right from the start. The Murphys were entangled in it, at the center of it, and they suffered both in and out of the public eye. Klaussmann introduces readers to the Murphys as young adults, and then bounces fairly quickly from their courtship and early marriage into their solidified relationship and life on the Riviera, leaping right into the meat of the story — the parties, the booze, the madness. Despite my glib review title, I was legitimately moved by this book, and I highly recommend it.