Thursday, April 02, 2015
Mademoiselle Chanel by C. W. Gortner
Timing is a fascinating thing. I finished reading Mademoiselle Chanel, C. W. Gortner's fictional biography of designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel just as I was beginning a Coursera course on Australian literature. Shortly after I finished writing a brief review at Goodreads, the subject of historical fiction and whether or not it's crucial for an author to maintain accuracy in historical detail came up in class. Does the word "fiction" grant the author room to play or is an author who peoples his books with real historical characters and settings obligated to stick as close to the truth as possible? It's a question that's been debated for a long time but one I neglected to consider when I was writing my thoughts about Mademoiselle Chanel.
My takeaway from that discussion was the realization that I'd fallen into the typical expectation trap as I read Mademoiselle Chanel. During the reading, I looked up photos of Coco Chanel and her various friends and lovers. One photo that especially stood out was an image of Chanel looking practically giddy upon meeting Hitler. Was Chanel portrayed too kindly in Mademoiselle Chanel, not as a collaborator but as a fierce businesswoman and deceived lover? After a bit of thought, I decided that's one of the wonderful things about the "fiction" in historical fiction. You can read what historians believe to be the facts elsewhere, but Gortner was able to jump into Chanel's head and imagine what she might have been thinking. That's really pretty cool, isn't it?
****Update: Many thanks to Christopher Gortner for dropping by to let me know that the image I mentioned was not, in fact, Coco Chanel but Wallis Simpson meeting Hitler. I pulled up the image again and the resemblance to Chanel from that particular angle is uncanny but it's labeled "The Duke and Duchess of Westminster" (which is incorrect - they were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor). I didn't even notice the former king standing there or bother to click on the image to see the identification. My mistake!****
At any rate, I truly enjoyed the reading. I've never paid a great deal of attention to fashion but like most people I was familiar with Coco Chanel and her minimalist style. I knew almost nothing about her life, though, and requested an advance reader copy of Mademoiselle Chanel purely on the basis of Gortner's past writing. I still feel the same about his writing; it's immersive, vivid, sensitive to the subtleties of time and place. I found Chanel a fascinating individual, especially considering the challenges she faced as a woman coming from an impoverished background. Well done, Mr. Gortner.
Highly recommended - A well-written, captivating account of a truly unique, creative and sensual woman's rags to riches life.
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