Sunday, March 29, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Mademoiselle Chanel by C. W. Gortner

Who knew Coco Chanel was such a fascinating woman? A lot of people, apparently, and, fortunately, C.W. Gortner is one of them. An acclaimed historical novelist, Gortner is known for books that are set in the medieval or Tudor periods. (I have one of his earlier books waiting on my shelf.) Given my usual preference for those time periods, it’s perhaps a little strange that instead of starting with one of those, I’ve jumped to his new release: Mademoiselle Chanel. Since I’ve been meaning to delve into Gortner’s work, my reading habits have been including more twentieth century fiction, and because this book has been generating a lot of buzz, I grabbed a copy from my local library.


Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel begins her life in miserably disadvantaged circumstances. Coming from a poverty-stricken, rural French home, Gabrielle, along with her siblings, is abandoned by a shiftless father after her mother dies. Her aunts send her and her sisters to be brought up at a convent. It is there that her talent for sewing is nurtured and her dream of one day owning a shop is born.

Owning a shop takes time, hard work, and most importantly, capital investment. Gabrielle has the drive and is not afraid of work. With her youth, verve, and good looks, she has a remarkable penchant for attracting men with money, LOTS of money. But she never intends to be a "kept" woman. She wants to earn her own way by creating something, building something of her own. Fortunately, she is able to attract a man who believes in her enough to stake her start in a business of her own and she takes it from there. The iconic Coco Chanel is born, more than a designer but a personality and businesswoman of immense influence.

The novel, told in Chanel’s first person viewpoint, paints a nuanced portrait of a complex woman. She lived in Paris during both World Wars. (That alone caught my interest. Of course, that’s what French people did, but what might such a life be like?) She never married but had a series of lovers (French, British, and German.) She faced a number of business and economic challenges, tackling them all with a ruthless determination to succeed and stay relevant in an ever-changing world. Gortner puts the reader right into the midst of all that talent, striving, yearning, loneliness, and success. Although the novel is clearly a labor of love, the author does not sugarcoat Coco’s flaws. With this balanced portrayal, her accomplishments shine forth all the more.

No comments:

Post a Comment