MADEMOISELLE CHANEL by C. W. Gortner
William Morrow/HarperCollins, March 2015
What happens when an author known for his convincing, dramatically compelling depictions of the sixteenth century tries his hand at the twentieth? He does a superb job! C. W. Gortner, who has penned vivid fictional portraits of Juana la Loca, Catherine de Medici, Isabella of Castile, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, reconstructs the life and ambition of early twentieth century icon Coco Chanel in his latest novel, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL. With the attention to detail and vigorous narrative drive readers of his early modern fiction have come to expect, Gortner recreates the unsettled glamor of wartime Europe and the woman who constructed both a self and a fashion empire amid grueling uncertainty and near constant upheaval.
Gortner’s novel attempts to answer the question Coco herself poses in the short prologue: “Who is Coco Chanel?” An enigmatic and intensely private woman, the historical Coco presented a carefully cultivated public persona that promoted the allure of her “look.” Yet was she as aloof and self-interested as she appeared? In his chronological exploration of her life, Gortner uncovers the psychological wounds that may have prompted Coco to withdraw behind protective defenses.
The opening chapters of the novel depict Coco's childhood as one of poverty and loss. Abandoned by her father after the death of her mother and raised in a convent orphanage, young Gabrielle has nothing but her skill with a needle, her fashion sense, and her determination with which to forge a better life. Though she dreams of opening a hat shop, with no ready capital she must supplement her meager sweatshop salary by singing in local cabarets under the sobriquet “Coco.” There, she attracts the attention of the Étienne Balsan, heir to one of the largest fortunes in France. Although she does not love him, Coco becomes his mistress. Balsan introduces her to a life of luxury, but one of industry, too. He indulges her “hat hobby” and Coco soon gains a large clientele among the socialites of Balsan’s circle. Through him she meets rich industrialist Arthur Capel, who becomes the love of her life. Capel finances her first shop in Paris (she eventually repays every penny, with interest) and slowly her business grows. By 1912 she is designing clothes as well as hats and opening far-flung boutiques. But unlike other women of her age, Coco has no desire for marriage or children. She is wedded to her work, to her success, and to her aesthetic.
As Coco's astounding career unfolds through two world wars, the reader cannot help but attribute her prickly self-reliance to an underlying fear of being abandoned yet again, of slipping back into the poverty and obscurity she only just managed to escape. This dread remains ever with her, defining her relationships with colleagues and employees, tainting her friendships, determining whom and when she will love. In probing Coco’s inner life, Gortner stirs the reader’s compassion for this controversial figure. His admiring yet candid assessment inspires respect for a complicated, resolute woman who was not above conspiring with Nazis if it might win her imprisoned nephew his freedom and her enterprise a measure of protection from the vicissitudes of war.
In his effort to understand and unveil his elusive subject, Gortner follows Chanel from backwater cabaret to busy atelier, from Parisian townhouse to elegant yacht, from occupied hotel dining room to German prison, never shirking the difficult or less than complimentary moments of her life. Who, ultimately, is Coco Chanel in Gortner’s eyes? A pragmatist. A visionary. A survivor. And like his indomitable heroine, C.W. Gortner displays, in this breakout book, an ability to rise to new challenges and succeed with admirable finesse--and good measure of panache.
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You can enter the giveaway here or on the book blogs participating in this tour. Be sure to follow each participant on Twitter/Facebook; they are listed in the entry form below. Visit each blogger on the tour: tweeting about the giveaway every day of the tour will give you 5 extra entries each time! Just follow the directions on the entry form. Six winners: five printed copies + one beautiful, handcrafted beaded bracelet inspired by Coco's black and white signature colors and camellia design. Open to US readers only.