The Dressmaker’s Secret by Lorna Cook: Brimming with poignancy and drama, rich in period atmosphere - book review -
For decades after her death in 1971, the scandalous rumours that French fashion icon Coco Chanel had been a Nazi collaborator during the wartime Occupation of Paris remained just whispers in quiet corners.
But in 2011, documented evidence came to light (thanks to the work of ex-US Foreign Service Officer Hal Vaughan) which would seem to indicate that the world-famous designer had, in fact, not just been ‘sleeping with the enemy’ but may also have been a Nazi agent.
The chequered life of Coco Chanel – who spent much of the war in a suite at the luxurious Ritz Hotel in Paris where she lived alongside high-ranking Nazi military officers – caught the eye of historical novelist Lorna Cook, a writer who finds much of her inspiration in pieces of forgotten history.
And after a recent success with The Girl from the Island, an eye-opening account of the terrible hardships faced by the people of Occupied Guernsey, Cook has harnessed the shadowy wartime days of Coco Chanel in a riveting, time-slip tale of secrets, subterfuge and resistance.
Through the eyes of her young and plucky assistant, Adèle Fabron, readers are swept into the lives of both the brutal aggressors and the brave French Résistance fighters who risked all to help the innocent victims of the occupying Nazi regime.
Raised by nuns at an orphanage in Saint-Nazaire on the west coast of France, Adèle Fabron had a lucky break when she made her way to Paris and was offered a job as a seamstress by the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel.
And when the fashion house was closed after the Nazis jack-booted their way into the city in 1941, Adèle was fortunate to be kept on as private assistant to Mademoiselle Chanel at her large and expensive suite in the Ritz Hotel.
It’s a mixed blessing for Adèle because now she must live side by side with German officers in the Ritz while her anger at the invaders, who are starting to round up the city’s Jews, grows stronger by the day. Mademoiselle Chanel tells her that they must ‘adapt’ and that as long as they do nothing to give the Nazis cause for concern, they have no need to worry.
But everything changes when Adèle meets Theo Dixon, an American doctor working in a hospital under the auspices of the International Red Cross. Theo is secretly working for the Résistance, including helping stranded British airmen return to their homeland.
Soon Adèle, who has fallen in love with Theo, is joining the fight even though Mademoiselle Chanel is now in a close relationship with fellow Ritz resident, Nazi propaganda official Hans Günther von Dincklage.
And as Occupied Paris becomes more and more dangerous, Adèle will have to decide if she can risk everything to save innocent lives and protect the man she loves…
Seventy-seven years later, Chloé James’ 97-year-old grandmother Adèle has never spoken about the war and avoids questions about the legendary designer she once worked for.
So now Chloé – who is recovering from a messy divorce – has come to Paris on a ‘gap year’ to uncover the truth about Adèle’s life. And it’s there that she meets gallery owner Etienne Vaillancourt who has his own personal interest in Paris during the war years. Together, they embark on digging up the past but is Chloé prepared for what she will find… and for the power of her grandmother’s secrets to change her family forever?
Blending fact and fiction, and a cast of real and invented characters, Cook weaves between two timelines and two different generations of a family for this gripping and heartbreaking tale of secrets, sacrifice, love and survival.
Using the dark history of disturbing events in Occupied Paris as her chilling backdrop, Cook transports us from the city’s bright lights that tempt Chloé in 2018 back to the tarnished glitz of the Ritz Hotel where Adèle must daily brush shoulders with Nazi officers and officials.
Fast-paced, simmering with Adèle’s constant fear of being discovered as a covert Résistance worker, and threaded through with fascinating facts about Coco Chanel’s alleged collaboration with the Nazis, this is an enthralling rollercoaster ride that blends history and gritty reality with danger, suspense and romance.
Brimming with poignancy and drama, rich in period atmosphere, and with a surprise twist in the tail, The Dressmaker’s Secret sees Cook at her storytelling best.
(Avon, paperback, £7.99)