This thoughtful debut novel illustrates the impact of war on three young Americans visiting Paris.
Ponepinto (The Face Maker, 2013) seamlessly blends two of his interests: World War I and vaudeville, in which his grandfather once performed. His novel is set just before the start of the Great War, when three American vaudeville performers find themselves drawn into the orbit of Jean Jaures, the French peace advocate whose speeches single-handedly managed to postpone the start of the European conflict for two years. With war in the air, Jack and Gus, who team in a lonesome-cowboy act, and Kera, “The Parisienne Nightingale,” find themselves stranded in Paris, where the owner of the club at which they’re playing refuses (or can’t afford) to pay his performers. Fed up with his unrequited love for Gus, Jack decides to come out, and their forays into gay nightlife culture reveal the underbelly of the French capital, specifically at the smoke-filled cabaret Le Secret. From this dingy nexus, the trio divides, each following a separate destiny and initially making questionable choices, as the young often do. Yet they mature against the backdrop of a steady march toward war, inevitable after the assassination of Jaures. As Gus explains, “There was no need for the factions to debate the war any longer. It would come now. He took a last drink of the chill, bitter coffee—this was what the future would taste like for the Parisians.” Blending real and fictional characters, Ponepinto remarkably sketches the end of an era for France, which is slipping into a war that ultimately sparks another. All this is seen through the naïve eyes of three Americans, blank slates for history to sketch upon as they admirably evolve.
A winning novel about how small missteps can result in global consequences.