Title: The Queen of Paris: A Novel of Coco Chanel
Author: Pamela Binnings Ewen
Genre: Adult, Historical Fiction
Published: April 7th, 2020 (Blackstone Publishing)
Synopsis: Legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel is revered for her sophisticated style–the iconic little black dress–and famed for her intoxicating perfume Chanel No. 5. Yet behind the public persona is a complicated woman of intrigue, shadowed by mysterious rumors. The Queen of Paris, the new novel from award-winning author Pamela Binnings Ewen, vividly imagines the hidden life of Chanel during the four years of Nazi occupation in Paris in the midst of WWII–as discovered in recently unearthed wartime files.
Coco Chanel could be cheerful, lighthearted, and generous; she also could be ruthless, manipulative, even cruel. Against the winds of war, with the Wehrmacht marching down the Champs-Élysées, Chanel finds herself residing alongside the Reich’s High Command in the Hotel Ritz. Surrounded by the enemy, Chanel wages a private war of her own to wrestle full control of her perfume company from the hands of her Jewish business partner, Pierre Wertheimer. With anti-Semitism on the rise, he has escaped to the United States with the confidential formula for Chanel No. 5. Distrustful of his intentions to set up production on the outskirts of New York City, Chanel fights to seize ownership. The House of Chanel shall not fall.
While Chanel struggles to keep her livelihood intact, Paris sinks under the iron fist of German rule. Chanel – a woman made of sparkling granite – will do anything to survive. She will even agree to collaborate with the Nazis in order to protect her darkest secrets. When she is covertly recruited by Germany to spy for the Reich, she becomes Agent F-7124, code name: Westminster. But why? And to what lengths will she go to keep her stormy past from haunting her future?
Thank you to the publisher, Blackstone Publishing, and Edelweiss for providing me with an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
The Queen of Paris is a glimpse into the life of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel better known as Coco Chanel during the years of World War II. On one hand, the Nazi occupy Paris, and on the other, Coco’s business partner has escaped to America taking with him the confidential formula of the world famous Chanel No. 5 perfume. Fearing a double cross that might see her cut out of her business and the loss of her life’s work, she begins a legal battle for the ownership of the House of Chanel and is determined to win at any cost, using the fact that her business partner is Jewish to her favour, and even collaborating with the Nazis.
Coco Chanel is a new historical figure for me, and I’ve never read much about her before. What I found most interesting about this book was that, although it is set in the middle of World War II, it focuses entirely on Chanel’s experience of it. Largely, Coco’s lifestyle is not affected much by the Nazi occupation at all, and she continues her luxurious lifestyle, legal battles aside. Interspersed with flashbacks from her younger years, the author paints a fascinating portrait of a girl of humble beginnings who learned some hard lessons along the way and grew into a strong and determined woman. I think this is also the first time I’ve read a historical fiction novel that doesn’t focus on a character that could be considered a ‘heroic’ figure by any stretch of imagination – a very complicated protagonist, if she can be called that at all.
Coco is a hard character to like. She’s had a difficult life, no doubt, but her only focus is on her business and what might become of her were she to lose it. A Nazi sympathizer, she treats the war as no more than a nuisance and in some cases turns a deliberate blind eye to the sufferings around her, only caring when it affects someone close to her and even then only for that one person. The extent she is willing to go to to ensure her personal financial security and that of the House of Chanel is quite shocking – collaborating with Nazis, even before her costly mistake that leads to her turning spy. However, what I found far more interesting were the flashbacks from her earlier years, the repeated betrayals by the men in her life, and the events that led to the creation and rise of the House of Chanel, known as the Société Mademoiselle. But behind the glamour in the end, Coco Chanel led a very solitary life, ultimately something she brought upon herself by her actions.
One thing I found really odd about this book was how the flashbacks were in first person, but the present day timeline was not. It was very jarring each time it switched, and would have been much better had the entire story been in first person. It was also extremely curious how, despite how driven by self-interest alone Coco is, there was a part of her that was astonishingly enough, still naive even after the many experiences and lessons she has gone through in life – she still doesn’t care to look beyond her own perspective.
I really enjoyed this portrayal of Coco Chanel, a woman who was charming, but also undoubtedly cold, calculating and ruthless. It was fun getting to know about this interesting personality in this well researched and intriguing read. Highly recommended!
The Queen of Paris releases on April 7th, 2020.
Do you plan to read this book? Let me know in the comments below!