Book review: Mademoiselle Chanel: A Novel by C. W. Gortner

From French laundrywoman’s daughter to legendary couturier, Coco Chanel’s life was as dramatic as the iconic fashions she created.
Mademoiselle Chanel: A Novel by C. W. GortnerMademoiselle Chanel: A Novel by C. W. Gortner
Mademoiselle Chanel: A Novel by C. W. Gortner

By the time she died aged 87 in 1971, Chanel had revolutionised fashion, built an international empire and become one of the most influential and controversial figures of the 20th century.

C. W. Gortner, best known for his enthralling 16th century Tudor novels, gets to the heart of this ambitious, enigmatic woman in a stunning novel that imagines both Chanel’s rags-to-riches career and her complex, sometimes tragic, private life.

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For Gortner, a former fashion executive from San Francisco, it was ‘a labour of love’ and the realisation of a long-held ambition. His fascination with fashion and the personalities who create it has never abated and the opportunity to write about Chanel’s rise to fame was a dream come true.

And the fulfilment of his dream pays dividends in a vibrant, seductive story packed with guts and glamour, passion and pain, whisking us away to Coco’s tough childhood, her meteoric rise to fame, the personal tragedies that left their scars, and her fraternisation with the Nazis during the wartime occupation of Paris.

Born into rural poverty, Gabrielle Chanel and her siblings are left at the mercy of their cold-hearted aunts when their beloved mother dies and their father walks out on them.

The girls are dispatched to the convent orphanage of Aubazine in central France where the sisters nurture Gabrielle’s exceptional sewing talent. ‘A skill like this can save you,’ one of the nuns tells her, little realising that it will propel the wilful young woman into a life far removed from the drudgery of her childhood.

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Released from her schooling, Gabrielle transforms herself into Coco, creating stylish hats by day and at night singing in a smart coffee bar in Moulins, where the petite brunette burns with an incandescence that catches the eye of store heir Étienne Balsan who launches her fashion career.

But it is at a race meeting that she meets another millionaire playboy, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, who becomes the love of her life. She immerses herself in his world of money and luxury, discovering a freedom that sparks her creativity.

Yet it is only when Boy takes her to Paris that Coco discovers her true 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 takes off, transporting her into rarefied society circles and bohemian salons, but her fame and fortune cannot save her from heartbreak as the years pass.

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And when Paris falls to the Nazis, Coco is forced to make choices that will haunt her for the rest of her life…

Gortner brings us the flesh-and-blood Coco Chanel… her steely determination, the years of struggle, the devastating loss of the only man who stole her heart, the vulnerability she tried so hard to hide and the exceptional design talent which raised her to the dizzy heights of fashion fame.

It is a vividly imagined, impeccably researched and enthralling tale which perfectly captures Chanel and her restless, fiercely driven world at the centre of some of the 20th century’s most tumultuous events.

This is an exciting novel not just for readers fascinated by Coco and her remarkable career but as a revealing insight into those extraordinary people who overcome the highest hurdles to reach their potential and make an indelible mark on history.

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Fact and fiction stitched together with the precision of the legendary seamstress…

(William Morrow, hardback, £14.99)