Sharon's Book & Wine Club - May 2020
The Queen of Paris by Pamela Binnings Ewen
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 Elysee, 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?
Summary by GoodReads.
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Coco Chanel schemes to save her company in Ewen’s (An Accidental Life, 2013, etc.) novel based on the life of the fashion icon.
1940, France: Coco Chanel gets the devastating news that the man who financed her company and paved the way for her iconic success in the fashion industry has stolen the formula for Chanel No. 5. Betrayed and self-righteous, Coco does everything she can think of to thwart his plan, first by trying to buy out France’s jasmine supply, and then by mounting legal countermeasures. One of her darkest weapons: her willingness to challenge Pierre’s rights based on the fact that he is Jewish, for Paris soon falls under Nazi control. As she desperately fights to save her company, Coco also tries to make a deal with her lover, a Nazi spy, to save her nephew (really her son). Spatz agrees to help, as long as Coco will first travel to Spain, there to spy on her vast network of friends and acquaintances and uncover secret information that could bring Spain into the war as a German ally. Ewen’s Coco is a proud and image-conscious character, sprung from a painful, lonely childhood to become a self-made triumph. A Machiavellian madame, she is quite willing to live comfortably in the Hotel Ritz in Paris, surrounded by Nazi officers, as the rest of her country falls to ruin, as the Jews are rounded up and “counted” and then begin disappearing. She’s a hard character to like, but her uncompromising sense of self-worth does inspire grudging admiration at times. Unfortunately, this independent stance indirectly facilitates the horrors of the Holocaust. Perhaps the most uncomfortable effect of Ewen’s story, then, is the way it makes the reader wonder: Would I have understood the true horror of the Nazis’ plans any better than Coco? Would I have taken action, or would I, too, have let the war pass me by?
More morality play than fashion fable; a reminder that fame does not always guarantee goodness or likability.
Ewen (The Moon in the Mango Tree) dazzles in this outstanding historical thriller that chronicles the life of Coco Chanel in occupied France. While staying at Paris’s Hotel Ritz in the spring of 1940, Chanel is approached by the Reich’s High Command to become a spy and sees an opportunity to take control of the company she’s built with her business partner, Pierre Wertheimer. As the war escalates, Pierre takes the secret formula of Chanel No. 5 to New York City, threatening Chanel’s control of her iconic fragrance. After becoming a German asset, Chanel attempts to use growing anti-Semitism and new Jewish laws under the Vichy government to her advantage to reclaim full control of her company. Her efforts bring her to the attention of powerful members of the German military, who push the limits of her national and personal loyalties as she goes undercover for the Nazis. Ewen’s Chanel is arrogant and fragile in equal measure, and the author does a marvelous job of digging into the motivations of a woman born into poverty as she defends the fortune she built for herself, making this a refreshingly nuanced character portrait and also a real page-turner. This is top-notch historical fiction. Agent: Julie Gwinn, The Seymour Agency. (Apr.)
With its pivotal focus on Coco Chanel’s reported World War II work as a Nazi spy, Pamela Binnings Ewen’s novel The Queen of Paris fictionalizes the thoughts and motivations of the French design icon––a complex, controlled woman who rose from poverty to great fame and who guarded her creations and reputation with fierce intensity.
To create a softer impression of Chanel’s often myopic drive for success and self-determination, the book includes flashback passages. Abandoned by her father, Chanel is seen spending her childhood in a convent, her early years joyless and regimented. Later, she becomes the mistress of two wealthy men, but never attains the social standing to marry either; she only finds financial independence through her unique fashion designs. She is forced to pretend that her son, Andre, is her nephew; she uses morphine to escape reality in acts of deliberate indifference.
As the Third Reich invades Paris, Chanel has to deal with the chaos of wartime occupation and the threatened takeover of her No. 5 perfume by a business partner. Her finances are dwindling; her renowned fashion house is temporarily closed. She learns that Andre, who is serving in the French army, is a German prisoner of war.
With the shifting intrigue of covert operations and glimpses of European society—a fascinating backdrop of luxury, fear, duplicity, violence, and harsh moral dilemmas—Chanel’s collaboration with the Germans is written as reprehensible and self-serving. She is positioned as someone who perhaps felt like Paris itself: besieged, defiled, and determined to survive by whatever measures necessary.
Empathetic yet unsparing, The Queen of Paris is an engrossing historical novel that reveals another room in the House of Chanel: beyond the timeless elegance, simplicity, and jasmine-scented perfume was a desperate woman, trapped by a maze of circumstances and her own troubled mind.
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The following book club questions will have spoilers so if you haven’t read the novel yet, read my review first.