All writers start with a blank space, and try to fill it with words. But what I love about Liza Klaussman’s novel, Villa America is that her first blank space was not an empty sheet of paper, but rather a mysterious moment in time.
Her story is inspired by the lives of one of the Lost Generation’s golden couples, Sara and Gerald Murphy — who also inspired Scott Fitzgerald to write Tender Is the Night. The Murphys rubbed elbows with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Pablo Picasso — all of whom make cameos in Villa America in scenarios that are real, imagined, or somewhere in between.
Klaussman’s fascination with Sara and Gerald Murphy began in graduate school, while she was writing a thesis on Tender Is the Night. That research led her to Amanda Viall’s biography of the Murphys, Everybody Was So Young. In the biography, Viall brings up a champagne and caviar party that Sara and Gerald threw in honor of Hemingway, and mentions in passing that they hired a pilot to fly the caviar from the Caspian Sea to them for the event. It’s a very casual detail: There is no mention of what the pilot’s name is, how the Murphys knew him, or how much they paid him. But in this blank space, Klaussmann’s novel begins. She invents the pilot, a man she calls Owen Chambers, and uses vague inferences in letters to Gerald’s struggle with his sexuality to weave a new love story.
That a story this full and alive could have been born out of the passing mention
of caviar is, to me, absolutely thrilling. 426 pages, and all because of what wasn’t said about an hors d’oeuvre!
Maybe because of Owen’s creation story, Klaussmann associates him with eggs from the very first sentence of the novel — “The sky was blue as a robin’s egg on the afternoon they pulled Owen Chamber’s body out of the Baie des Anges.” Later in the novel, we see Owen as a young farm boy whose life is forever changed after he delivers four dozen eggs to a wealthy new neighbor who owns an airplane. Gazing at the plane, he wonders, “How many eggs would someone have to sell to buy a thing like this?”
Years later, Sara and Owen marvel over a blue china bowl filled with white eggs that Sara has put on the table just for decoration, because “some of the most beautiful things are things that aren’t used in the way they were intended…it doesn’t matter what it was supposed to be, what it was born as. It’s what you make of it.” Owen considers this, before taking an egg in his own hand. He tells her, “This taught men how to build airplanes. How to make them efficient. A plane’s skin, not an internal structure, supports the load, the same way an eggshell bears the weight of the egg.”
Is this true or not? I have no idea and I don’t even dare to look it up.
What’s wonderful is that it doesn’t matter.
The push and pull between what’s real and what’s imagined, what is earthly, concrete, and what is more abstract, is woven through Villa America. Owen spends his childhood on a farm working the earth and ends up in the sky as an adult. Gerald is a creative, a painter, but the subjects of his paintings are concrete things — straight razors and rulers, the intricacies of an engine.
It makes sense then that eggs would figure so heavily in Villa America. In an egg there is both the physical and the spiritual — it is an earthly thing, but one that holds within it the possibility of a new life, which is what Villa America, at its core, is really about.
Soft Scrambled Eggs with Caviar
4 large eggs, room temperature if possible
Pinch of kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Sour cream, chopped red onion for serving
2 ounces caviar
Toast for serving (optional)
Crack eggs into a medium saucepan, add salt and whisk to break the yolks up slightly. Turn heat to medium and cook, whisking constantly and vigorously to keep large curds from forming, until the eggs begin to set around the edges — 1–1 ½ minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low, and continue cooking and whisking until the eggs are cooked enough to leave a film on the bottom of the saucepan — about 1 more minute. Remove the pan from the heat, add butter and heavy cream and continue whisking, off the heat, until the butter and cream are incorporated. The eggs will be very soft and creamy. Spoon into bowls or onto toast, top with crème fraiche, onions, and caviar, and serve.