Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mademoiselle Chanel: Lover, Designer, Spy?

Mademoiselle ChanelThere have been other duchesses of Westminster, but there can only be one Coco Chanel.

I've watched two different movies about Coco now. I've had the same complaint about each one.... They show us her childhood quickly--her growing up an orphan in a nunnery, her talent for sewing increasing each day. Then we'll see her singing in a bar, sewing for a cheap shrew nearly in exchange for room and board. Then it introduces us to her first lover, the wealthy horseman, who let her make hats in his home and introduced her to her second lover, Boy.

And Boy comes and sweeps her off her feet and then...he dies.

And perhaps the movie will show Coco designing a line of clothes after that and yet, that's it. The movie, and with it, her story, ends. As if that was all there was to Coco--her love with Boy, her loss of him, and oh, a few clothes.

There was so much more to Coco and C.W. Gortner shows us that. He goes far beyond the death of Boy. When Boy passes on, it's only halfway through the novel, that's how much Gortner gives us of Coco, the woman, the designer, the lover, the spy.

We see her as a daughter, then an orphan who loves to read and sew and feels slighted by her remaining family members, abandoned. Then we live with Coco as young woman working for a pittance, singing, debating whether she wants to take a lover or not. Lover Coco wonders why she doesn't feel the way others do. Marriage and children do not appeal. She wants to be independent and she makes this happen through persistence and hard work. We love Boy with her and feel her frustration at the things he does. We travel all over France with her as she renovates houses and designs clothes, introduces the little black dress, battles over a perfume contract, mourns, takes lovers. We go the ballet with her, get to know her sisters--who pines for marriage, who has a baby out of wedlock--and her friends--artist types and drug addicts.

The writing is terrific, though there are a few spots that are more telling than showing, almost info dumps, almost but not quite. And if my mind began to stray at times, the next page would hook me once again.

Most fascinating of all--and I applaud Gortner for tackling this--we finally see Coco the "spy" during WWII. Was she really a spy or was all she did for the sake of survival? Was she an unwitting accomplice? Did she care about her nephew so very much? Should we shun her for having taken a German lover? Taking a lover doesn't make one a spy...

Everyone will make their own conclusions. Me, I liked Gortner's take on the rumor. I didn't always like WWII Coco, I won't lie. But it all makes sense when you put together the rumors and Gortner's story.

There were many sides to Coco, as there is to all women. I appreciated her drive, her independence, her ability to shun society. I didn't like how she handled her perfume contract (it was your idea, you signed it, you can't change it now), nor did I care for her WWII persona (you've barely paid attention to your nephew), but I related to her (especially the motherhood debate) and she came alive for me in this novel. I also really really enjoyed the history behind No. 5.

Mr. Gortner, excellent job. I can't wait to see what strong woman in history you decide to write about next.

I had to curb my tongue when another corseted-to-her-teeth matron wailed, "Never in my life has anyone dared to make a fool of me until now!" because if she ever bothered to look in her mirror, she would have seen that her dressmaker had done precisely that.

I received a digital ARC via Edelweiss.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen those Coco movies and agree that I wanted more about her adulthood. I look forward to reading this, I'm usually pretty satisfied with Gortners facts and writing.