Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: Mademoiselle Chanel

Summary: For readers of The Paris Wife and Z comes this vivid novel full of drama, passion, tragedy, and beauty that stunningly imagines the life of iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel—the ambitious, gifted laundrywoman’s daughter who revolutionized fashion, built an international empire, and become one of the most influential and controversial figures of the twentieth century.

Born into rural poverty, Gabrielle Chanel and her siblings are sent to orphanage after their mother’s death. The sisters nurture Gabrielle’s exceptional sewing skills, a talent that will propel the willful young woman into a life far removed from the drudgery of her childhood.

Transforming herself into Coco—a seamstress and sometime torch singer—the petite brunette burns with ambition, an incandescence that draws a wealthy gentleman who will become the love of her life. She immerses herself in his world of money and luxury, discovering a freedom that sparks her creativity. But it is only when her lover takes her to Paris that Coco discovers her destiny.

Rejecting the frilly, corseted silhouette of the past, her sleek, minimalist styles reflect the youthful ease and confidence of the 1920s modern woman. As Coco’s reputation spreads, her couturier business explodes, taking her into rarefied society circles and bohemian salons. But her fame and fortune cannot save her from heartbreak as the years pass. And when Paris falls to the Nazis, Coco is forced to make choices that will haunt her. An enthralling novel of an extraordinary woman who created the life she desired, Mademoiselle Chanel explores the inner world of a woman of staggering ambition whose strength, passion and artistic vision would become her trademark. -- William Morrow

When I first started blogging many moons ago, I discovered some historical fiction novels by C.W. Gortner. Granted, I was much more interested in books about kings and queens than I am now, but I really loved the way he told stories. Recently, I learned that Mr. Gortner wrote another novel about an iconic figure in the history of fashion called MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, and I had a feeling that it would be an interesting book.

MADEMOISELLE CHANEL is a perfect example of a rags to riches story. What makes it even more intriguing is that it's based on true events. Gabrielle Chanel, the daughter of a laundrywoman and mender, was sent to a Catholic orphanage after her mother's death. There, she honed her sewing skills which were the foundation of her life as one of the world's most famous fashion designers.

After Chanel left she orphanage, she became a seamstress a lounge singer (for lack of a better word.) Her nightlife gave her an entry into an entirely new world -- one with wealth and opulence. She also happened to meet a rich man who took her to Paris. There she was allowed to discover herself and her talent with fashion. And the rest is pretty much history....

Now called Coco, Chanel revolutionized fashion in the 1920s discarding corsets for sleek, simple designs that reflect modern women. Coco failed more attention and fame as her career skyrockets; however, she also faced her fair share of heartache. As Europe approaches World War II, Chanel also finds herself making difficult decisions about her role in the war effort.

I really liked MADEMOISELLE CHANEL and I found parts of this book to be fascinating. It goes to prove that truth can be stranger than fiction (although I do realize that this is a fictionalized account of her life!) I am once again admitting my ignorance, but I knew little about Coco Chanel outside of her famous perfume and her logo. Of course, I knew she was one of the most famous fashion designers ever, but I  had no idea about her upbringing and her role in World War II.

It's apparent that Mr. Gortner understood his subject matter, and he actually admits that he has always idolized Coco Chanel. Prior to becoming a successful writer, he worked in the fashion industry; and I suspect this book has been in his thoughts for some time. There is no doubt that he did his research on her, so much so that he felt he could write this novel in her voice. What I truly appreciated was how well he mixed the fact with the fiction, and the result is a very good novel!

I like to joke that I get my history lessons through historical fiction, and that was definitely the case with MADEMOISELLE CHANEL. I was absolutely riveted to the end of this novel -- the parts which portrayed Chanel's involvement in the war. In fact, this book actually inspired me to do some research of my own about Chanel's life. And I have to say that I think Mr. Gortner portrayed this aspect of her life in a slightly kinder way than what might have actually happened. In all honestly, I liked his interpretation and thought it made for a great story!

One thing that really stood out to me about this novel is how he portrayed Coco Chanel from her childhood to her death. Obviously for a woman to have this much success in the 1920s and on, she had to be tough. And tough she was! I actually thought she sounded a little cold-hearted (and maybe even ruthless) in this novel when she dealt with her employees; and after I researched her life a bit, I think that was definitely the case. She was a woman with a mission and no one was going to stop her.

However, Mr. Gortner also portrayed a softer side of Chanel by showing the relationship with her lovers and her nephew. It was interesting to see how much loss Chanel faced in her life -- many of it early on in her childhood and young adult life. I thought Mr. Gortner did an excellent job of explaining Chanel's actions by showing how her past formed her.

MADEMOISELLE CHANEL would make an excellent book club discussion. There is a little bit of everything in this novel including love, loss, success, friendship, Russian royalty, and even Nazis! I was happy to see that there is a reading guide available with eleven questions. Most groups would have no problems with discussing Chanel's actions and motivations for some time.

Overall, I liked MADEMOISELLE CHANEL a great deal. Recommended to fans of historical fiction and those individuals interested in the history of fashion.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

My book club is really excited to be reading this soon!

westmetromommy said...

I really enjoyed this book as well. Like you, I knew little about Coco Chanel going into it, but I think that added to my enjoyment!

Beth F said...

This is on my list and now I can't wait to get to it.

C.W. Gortner said...

Always a pleasure to be here and I'm so very honored by your review. Thank you!