Mademoiselle Chanel by C.W. Gortner

Title: Mademoiselle Chanel
Author: C.W. Gortner

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 20th Century / France / Paris / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Fashion / Love Affairs / World War II)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow (3/17/2015)
Source: France Book Tours

Rating: Looooooooooooooooved -- a fav of 2015.
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: Famed fashion designer Coco Chanel tells her story, from her childhood as a seamstress in a convent to her rise as one the world's trend setters, as well as her fall from grace after World War Two.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- I'm not, but this black and white design is a nod to Chanel's iconic style.

I'm reminded of...: Melanie Benjamin, Margaret George

First line: The herd gathers below.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy!!

Why did I get this book?: Gortner's work is stand out and I wanted to see his take on this legendary, controversial figure.

Review: The luxurious Chanel brand is iconic -- the perfume, the fashion, its founder -- and I'm surprised Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel hasn't been featured in a historical novel before. Her hist fic debut comes from C.W. Gortner, whose sublime The Queen’s Vow humanized Isabella, and this novel has set the high water mark for any future reads that attempt to tackle the notorious Chanel.

Born at the end of the 19th century in abject poverty, Gabrielle Chanel was turned over to a convent where she mastered sewing. Rather than taking vows to become a nun, Gabrielle instead became a seamstress and more daringly, a club singer -- where she earned her nickname Coco. Quickly, through her skill, ambition, and some fortuitous relationships, Chanel managed to project herself to fame over the decades as her once radical designs -- corset-less, trim, daring, modern -- set the standard for chic fashion. Weathering World War I and II, as well as devastating heartbreaks and notorious love affairs, Chanel lived a life that knew deprivation and luxury in equal part.

While the subject of this book is fascinating -- not just Coco herself, but the world she lived in -- the novel is made by Gortner's writing. Occasionally, I eye-roll when biographical novels use the first person viewpoint, as I find it makes the narrative all tell and no show, and allows the author off the hook when it comes to thornier details.

In Gortner's hands, however, Coco articulates her life with the spare, artistic verve of her designs. (He took his hand away. Not with harshness. His fingers just unraveled from mine, like poorly spun threads., p11) Even more delightfully, Coco's voice grows as she does, rather than remaining static throughout the book.

And the clincher: Gortner dealt with the ugly stuff. I was most curious about how Gortner would handle the allegations that Coco was a Nazi collaborator and spy. It's obvious from this sympathetic novel that Gortner admires Chanel, and his suggestion of how the fashion designer became embroiled with the Nazis is sympathetic. But he offers characters who question her motives, her contradictions, allowing the reader to voice their doubts, too -- and like Coco's friends, we have to decide if we believe her. I found Gortner's articulation of Coco so solid that while I clucked at her choices, I understood why she made them.

This makes my second top ten read of 2015. Even if you're not a fan of fashion, consider grabbing this book, as it really is the story of a self-made woman, a visionary who imagined the way women wanted to live that differed from what society said. There are tawdry details brushing shoulders with heavier themes, armchair escape to early 20th century France, and some delicious name dropping that sent me into Wiki rabbit holes. At this point, I want Gortner to tackle every fashion designer -- like Chanel's nemesis, Elsa Schiaparelli -- but regardless of who he tackles next, I'm there.

Comments

  1. My book club is reading this for May and I've been a little worried about it so I'm thrilled to see how much you loved it.

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    1. Oh, I hope you enjoy it! I think it'll make for great discussion, too -- I'm jealous!

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  2. thanks for your fabulous review! I can see he has quite a fan in you! and for good reasons! Emma at FBT

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  3. I'd read this. I have been a Chanel perfume fanatic for ages and ages.

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    1. Ti, the thread of how she ended up making perfume and what happened with her perfume empire was fascinating -- could honestly be a whole novel unto itself!

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  4. Thank you. I'm so honored, I feel like I should buy you No. 5. It's always a labor of solitude and love to write a novel and then a total Xanax-and-vodka moment as that novel gets released to the world. You spared me my pill today but I'm raising a martini to you in utter appreciation.

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    1. Cheers and congrats on another stunning read! So very glad to squee about this one -- thank you for popping by -- you made my weekend!

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  5. Ok, you've successfully sold me on this one! I really enjoy well-done first-person portrayals of famous people, where I can learn something about them while also enjoying a well-narrated story. So basically...Madamoiselle Chanel sounds like a winner to me!

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    1. I'm so glad I was successful -- hope you love it! There's so much fabulousness going on in it!

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  6. Well this is a pleasant surprise!! I love me some biographical fiction (not 100% sure that's the 'official' term) and was extremely interested in this one, only so see it had been compared to a novel I couldn't finish. But your review has me thinking I just might have to give it a shot!

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    1. Leah, I'm not sure "biographical fiction" is even a legit genre/term but I find it does well in articulating exactly that these kinds of novels are like -- it's a fav genre of mine! Which novel was it compared to? The comps I've seen don't fit it, I think -- it reads more like Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife than Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, in my opinion.

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  7. I have loved Gortner's work for years, and I cannot wait to read this one.

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  8. I read one book by Gortner and wasn't that impressed, but I've been hearing more lately and maybe I should try another.

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  9. I loved this one too. It's my first Gortner book even though I've been intending to read his stuff for a long time-- and now I really have to read more!

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