Although the influence of Sara and Gerald Murphy is acknowledged in the lives of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, renown does not come easily for them but follows years of being borderline outcasts. Klaussmann’s novel begins in 1898, in an age where the female roles are clearly defined, particularly for privileged Sara Wiborg. As Sara grows older, she travels with her mother, Adeline, and her sisters, Hoytie and Olga, to London.
On the cusp of womanhood, Sara feels as though she’s living “in a state of suspended animation,” waiting for life to really begin. As early as 1910, she casts her eyes on her childhood friend Gerald Murphy, who proves to be a little brother of sorts, his sweet, sad face always so “full of melancholy.”
Although Adeline already has great plans for her daughters
(listing marriage prospects every chance she can get), it is sensitive, artistic Gerald
on whom Sara ultimately sets her heart. But the courtship is fraught with complications, particularly for Gerald, who likes to see himself through Sara’s eyes and not “the hidden, shadowy” contours of his father‘s expectations and constantly exasperated, disappointed expression. At Yale, where Gerald’s friends Cole Porter and Monty Woolly are considered “too artistic" to be the thing, Gerald continues to show little grasp of business. No surprises, then, that Gerald welcomes the chance for Sara to clasp and reach across “the wide black space” and offer him a panacea to all of his longing and loneliness.
“The only life I want is the one we invent for ourselves. I want something entirely of my own creation,” writes a newly self- conscious and indifferent Gerald from his army training camp in Texas, where amid drills, bayonets, and the rifle training he
is forced to exist in a world of other men. It is 1918, and America has entered the Great War. Gerald is obliged by circumstances to enlist, a soul-numbing experience. He misses Sara terribly while she waits at home for her him to return, happy to take pleasure in raising their first child.
These back-and-forth letters give us the first peek into the complicated dynamic of Sara and Gerald’s young marriage, as well as the observations of Linda Porter, who seems to be resent Gerald’s intimacy with her husband, Cole. The Murphys, with “their damn self-containment,” obvious affection, and ease together, bother Linda, yet it is clear--at least for now--that Sara is secure in her feelings for Gerald. This “arrangement” often feels smug to Linda, who resents the couple’s constant talk of Cap d’ Antibes and how natural their happiness is, as well as the simple life they purport to lead.
Villa America juxtaposes the romantic idylls that surround Gerald and Sara and in the process explores the differences between perception and reality. There’s an uncontrollable madness and self-destruction that is most personified through Klaussmann’s portrayal of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, at heart so hedonistic, fragmented, and damaged. Sara and Gerald are blindsided by the shrewd manipulations of Scott, who often comes across as spoilt and immature. Refusing to wallow in self-pity, Sara and Gerald can no longer bear the weight
of Scott’s deviousness or of Zelda’s mental illness. Ensconced in the beautiful
Villa America, high above the French Riviera, Sara finds herself caught in the
middle of Scott and Zelda’s troubled marriage and also the seductions of Ernest
Hemmingway. The connection between her and Gerald is feeling more and more precious as time passes.
While obviously the Fitzgeralds and the great Ernest Hemmingway are important for placing us into the context of Sara and Gerald’s marriage, the real window into the Murphys’ aspirations and frustrations comes from Klaussmann’s fictional character Owen Chambers. A handsome farmer’s son who is tragically exiled from his home and family, the gorgeous, blond-headed Owen heroically flies planes in the war. After an injury, he stays in France, living in rooms near Saint Raphael, running his business of flying goods for the rich from London to Paris and other, farther-flung places across Europe.
From the giddy postwar years, where the line between public and private sexual lives is so clearly delineated, to Gerald’s awe of Owen’s ability to “do things for himself,” to Owen’s inner secret that threatens to engulf and even destroy him, Klaussmann builds a three-way relationship in which Sara connects with Owen and Owen connects with Gerald. Sara suspects that something hangs “in the air like a musky perfume” that she cannot yet give a voice to. Sara’s aim is to have Owen close by at Villa America and to have him inside her privileged circle. Sara has to protect her marriage and her family from life’s vagaries--and
in doing so, she might have to allow for complications, and for Gerald’s new vague and furtive kind of love.
While I found the book a bit long and too heavily reliant on the letters between all the major players--especially in the final scenes--I
was quickly caught up in the lives of the many famous supporting characters who Klaussmann attempts to humanize and make sympathetic. Toward the end of the story, the wealthy-by-ex-pat standards Murphys are, in fact, near bankruptcy, becoming more and more desperate as yet another family tragedy swamps them with grief.
The powerful and seductive Côte d'Azur looms over them, providing an arc of radiance that embellishes and complements the lives of Sara, Gerald and lonely, isolated Owen.
When Gerald realizes his true self and is free to put on colors and make happier plans, we sense that there are brighter days ahead for Sara as well. It is a tribute to Klaussmann’s narrative gifts that, as her characters stride into their futures, we find ourselves eager to accompany them in this tale of love and unrequited passion.