I was thrilled the moment I heard about this book and I already knew it would be one of my top five favorites of the year. The recipe was perfectly set up to make it so: 1) Coco Chanel is one of my idols, primarily for her insatiable spirit to defy boundaries as a woman and in her craft (plus I love anything Chanel!) and 2) Christopher Gortner is one of my very favorite people and authors. I knew that if anyone could do a really extraordinary job featuring Coco, it would be him.
I’ve read, and own, other books about her. Some I noticed he read in his research as well. Due to this, I also knew that he’d done a great amount of research, yet I knew he’d bring a compassion and an experienced storytelling style to the novel that might have been lacking a little in others. Upon reading his book, I believe I was correct! Being involved in fashion himself, studying it and working in the field before becoming a writer, I knew that he’d also understand and bring to light the fashion end of it that so many others have not. He did, with superb detail. He proves the fact that fashion is not always about frills, but also about defining oneself.
In the beginning segment of the book, Gortner asks “Who is Coco Chanel?” As a reader, we are viewing her at an older age, fixing hem lines on models and watching them in thought as they wear her garments down the runway. Then, her story begins in 1895 when her mother dies, her father doesn’t want her or her siblings, and her aunts devise to send them away to an orphanage. She’s abandoned, and in this, changed forever. What she does take away with her from her childhood, however, is her sewing talent and ability. It’s something her mother taught her when she was little.
From there, we begin to understand and watch Coco’s struggle to find her place. Being sent to Notre Dame at Moulins, a convent boarding school, she discovers her heart is telling her she wants to “be someone…do something.” She isn’t interested in marrying a man so they can take care of her. She first travels to Vichy and finds her desire in hats. Not bedazzled hats, but in simplifying hats. She isn’t afraid of changing things up. Coco’s class is found mostly in her simple, streamlined vision. I appreciated how Gortner’s perception of her seemed so authentic, humble, and with so much more to her than the stoic woman we know now as THE woman behind the Chanel empire. Through his descriptive and delicate details that he strategically placed, we can feel her passion and determination. It’s easy to cheer on this insightful woman in her desire to offer her fashion views to the world, which in turn, changed the way women viewed themselves, and still do.
Gortner takes readers on a journey of Chanel’s life as she seeks love on her terms, even though her work is her true calling, not serving a man. When she became mistress to Etienne Balsan, he suggested that she not follow her passions, for instance, and she felt the limitations that men and society could put on women. In this, Coco realizes that her freedom as a woman would come from making her own money. She meets and begins an affair with Boy Capel, falling hard in love with him; however, even in that love it is still not enough to consume her completely (it doesn’t define her) and she realizes that her “being” is her work. This then, her work ethic, would always make others, men and women, feel inferior and jealous. However, in many ways Boy supported her efforts with money, loaning her money (which she paid back) to open her store fronts, and she was truly in love with him, so when he passed away she immortalized their relationship with her logo of interlocking CCs (Capel and Chanel).The depth of emotion that Gortner portrayed in these sections of his book were poignant and moving. Some portrayals of her have shown she had the ability to use others to get what she wanted, but Gortner shows us this was not always what it seemed. I didn’t feel that way with his novel.
In showcasing the initial portion of Chanel’s life, Gortner encompasses her growth of self and moving past these relationships, and where other books on Coco have left off, he picks up and leads the second half of the book into featuring her emerging empire through her time until the end of WWII when her business lessened in France. Most of all, I enjoyed seeing the materialization of perfume, Chanel No. 5, which is still probably the most iconic perfume on the market. It was fascinating watching her business sense and her reactions and relationships with others in regards to her business.
The woman we see emerge in her 40s is rather blunt, unemotional, and a work-a-holic. She stated that “men don’t understand me,” so she’d never marry, but she took many lovers. It’s obvious that at some point to deal with all her past sorrows, she immersed herself in work and remained detached from others. Her life pretty much felt over to her once she lost Boy, I think, except for her work dreams. She became a business woman to admire in that she didn’t let anything get in the way of her dreams, most of all any men.
Her life was one of drama, from her relationships to her alleged involvement with Nazis in WWII, and she was constantly reinventing herself in some shape or form, yet somehow always aligning to her simple style ideals. She was a patron of many artists and free thinkers. She wasn’t afraid to put past ideals of society for women in her fashion either. She created leisure wear for women made from cloth like jersey, commonly otherwise used in men’s underwear. She’s famed for the little black dress and the Chanel suit (especially in America after WWII), while leading what seemed like a life of constant intrigue. I loved watching her career unfold in this book, from her first millinery work and hat creation to her amazing French store fronts of clothing, accessories, and perfume.
I believe that Gortner truly took his care with this book. He POURED his entire being into writing this book and that certainly shows. He embodies the true Chanel, her heart and her intellect, her passion and her work. He paints a true portrait of the creative artist she was and opens up our heart as readers to her, allowing us to love every part of her incorrigible spirit. He introduces us to her lovers and her friends so that we don’t just see her as a solitary figure, but we see her within her vulnerable moments as well.
There’s been many books written about Coco Chanel and her work and life. However, Gortner has written an elegant story that only he can tell, leaving her a lasting legacy and giving her a soul in a way like no other I’ve read. If there’s one book you buy all year, buy this one, whether you’re already a fan of Chanel like me, you have an interest in fashion, or you’d love to read a compelling and captivating novel of one of the most iconic women of all time. It’s a gorgeously written book full of courage, compassion, depth, and soul.
Release date: March 17, 2015
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 became one of the most influential and controversial figures of the twentieth century.
Born into rural poverty, Gabrielle Chanel and her siblings are sent to an 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 designer 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.
C.W. Gortner, Biography~
His new novel, Mademoiselle Chanel, traces the tumultuous rise to fame of iconic fashion designer, Coco Chanel.
In 2016, Random House will publish his eighth novel, “Vatican Princess”, about Lucrezia Borgia.
Raised in Spain and a long-time resident of the Bay Area, C.W. is also dedicated to companion animal rescue from overcrowded shelters.
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