Review: Villa America, by Liza Klaussmann
Little, Brown, 2015. 426 pp. $26
Sara and Gerald Murphy, according to one contemporary, “had invented summer on the Riviera,” a remark that would have made them cringe. But for the American expatriate literary set in the 1920s, the Murphys weren’t just the life of the party; they were the party. Their ongoing celebration at Villa America, their splendid house at Cap d’Antibes, was a coveted invitation and, later, itself a literary subject. F. Scott Fitzgerald dedicated Tender Is the Night to Sara and Gerald (and thought, mistakenly, he’d written their characters); Ernest Hemingway wrote them into The Garden of Eden, a novel published posthumously; and Archibald MacLeish modeled the main characters of J.B., his verse-drama retelling of the Book of Job, after the Murphys.
That last reference tells you that Sara and Gerald suffered great tragedy, a metaphor for the golden years that came to a thudding end. But, as Villa America points out, their story mirrored the time in other ways. The beauty they revealed in the everyday, the ideas and discussions they encouraged, and their generosity toward their guests stimulated both passion and excess, the triumph and ugliness of the Twenties.
Klaussmann bends her considerable talent toward this ambitious subject. She re-creates the setting, the ambience, the devil-may-care, the rivalries, and the outsize personalities, drawing Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Hemingway with particular zest and color. My favorite part of the book, though, was the story of Sara’s and Gerald’s furtive courtship, and how these two lonely people who knew they were different from their horrible families managed to find one another and overcome parental objections to marry. That section reads like the music of isolation, yearning for connection, and the joy and relief at finding it.
In fact, music plays a role. There’s a splendid scene where Sara and her family attend the London premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which had caused such a scandal in Paris. The ballet makes her realize what it is she’s been missing, what she wants:
She wanted to be down on the stage with the dancers, feel her rib cage meet the planks, feel the sickly ache of having her breath knocked out. She was reminded of the first time she’d tasted blood in her mouth (a skating accident), the surprise that it tasted good, rich, tangy on her tongue, the even more startling revelation that she wanted to taste it again.
Naturally, no one else in Sara’s family understands the ballet or what it was trying to say. But she senses that Gerald would have, and from that moment, she feels less alone.
For me, however, the rest of Villa America went downhill, and I found myself plodding through. From the moment the Murphys settle in on the Riviera, each chapter, which covers a particular year, feels like an episode. Many have tension, some are entertaining, but they seem to go around in circles. There are parties at which the Fitzgeralds behave like spoiled children, enraging everyone. Hemingway, a charismatic lout, repays the Murphys’ generous hospitality by treating Gerald with contempt and trying to seduce Sara. And the cycle repeats.
I like stargazing, to a point. But there has to be a unifying thread, or the narrative never gets beyond that, and the one Klaussmann chose doesn’t work for me. Gerald has doubts about his sexual orientation, and though how he deals with this stunts him, his struggle remains largely isolated. I wish I could say more without giving away too much, but I wanted a confrontation, a reckoning, and there wasn’t one, something of an anticlimax.
As a result, Villa America remains for me a series of social situations that contain both beauty and ugliness, sometimes side by side. That’s life, it’s accurate, but it’s not a novel. The joy in the beginning and the tragedy at the end (unfortunately revealed in a prologue; why?) seem like two towers with no connecting wall. There’s a lot of dancing and drinking and back-stabbing taking place between them, but for me, that wasn’t enough.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.