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Mademoiselle Chanel


Mademoiselle Chanel

I’m not into fashion, which might make you wonder why I chose to read a book about Coco Chanel, the most well-known and iconic figure in the fashion world. First is a fascination with historical figures and the ways in which we reimagine their lives through fiction. Second is author C.W. Gortner. I’m a fan of his Tudor Spymaster series featuring Queen Elizabeth I, and I wanted to see what he would do with a figure like Chanel.

Coco, born Gabrielle Chanel, grows up in a very poor family, and when her mother dies at a young age, she and her siblings are split up. She is sent to a convent with her sisters, and her brothers are sent to work as farmhands. With a disinterested father and aunts who don’t want anything to do with the raising of their sister’s children, Coco grows bitter but determined never to be put in that situation again in her life. When a sister at the convent praises her needlework, she works toward the goal of becoming an apprentice to a seamstress. She also begins to see her way out of the convent and into a life with some manner of freedom.

"I’m glad I picked up MADEMOISELLE CHANEL. It’s immensely entertaining --- complete with fashion, affairs and parties --- and a wonderful escape to enjoy this spring."

Coco leaves the convent as a young woman and finds an apprentice position as a seamstress along with her young aunt, Adrienne, who she came to know at the convent. After toiling away with very little to show, Coco and Adrienne begin singing in the local nightclubs to earn extra money. It’s in this club that Coco meets Balsan, who quickly becomes the first in a long line of men in her life. After Balsan takes her away from the clubs and gives her a home and access to anything she desires, she gives up on her dream momentarily. She enjoys the money and freedom but not being a kept woman. It’s when she meets Boy, the proclaimed love of her life, that her dream of being a respected and renowned designer flourishes. Boy finances her first hat shop, which puts her on the path to fashion stardom.

Coco manages to survive both World Wars, but it’s during WWII that she decides to throw in the proverbial hat and retire, not wanting to deal with wartime issues or the Nazis. When her nephew is arrested and held in a Nazi camp, she does all she can --- using her contacts and money to help her nephew --- but others don’t agree with her wartime actions. Her somewhat suspect dealings make many wonder, which tarnishes her reputation among the French. Ten years after the war, when Coco decides to reenter the fashion world, the French give her a lukewarm welcome, but it’s the Americans who allow her to continue her reign as a fashion icon.

Sometimes we have to trust an author we like to do justice to a new subject. This was the case for me with MADEMOISELLE CHANEL. Gortner is clearly a fan of not only the woman but also her work. About halfway through the novel, I found myself searching Coco Chanel, not only to see her fashion vision, but also to find out more about her. Chanel set standards for herself that no other female at the time even thought possible. She accomplished so much in her life, and not just in the fashion world, which is an amazing legacy. She also changed the way women lived and overturned social conventions.

I’m glad I picked up MADEMOISELLE CHANEL. It’s immensely entertaining --- complete with fashion, affairs and parties --- and a wonderful escape to enjoy this spring.

Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on March 19, 2015

Mademoiselle Chanel
by C. W. Gortner

  • Publication Date: December 29, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062356437
  • ISBN-13: 9780062356437