Gortner continues his devotion to historical accuracy in his novel of esteemed designer Coco Chanel, his penchant for the distant past fast-forwarded to the early 20th century,
culminating dramatically with World War II and the occupation of Paris by the German army.
The details of Coco’s return to the fashion scene with a show in 1954 and her death two decades later are
a bit anticlimactic but necessary to complete the cycle of this extraordinary woman’s life. By then, her lovers and career accomplishments established, all that’s left are the poignant memories, lovers and old acquaintances lost to time.
Most striking about the trajectory of this successful designer’s life is the trauma that marked her from childhood, one spent in Aubagine Orphanage after the untimely death of her mother and a harsh decision by her father to leave the care of his offspring to others, Gabrielle (later Coco) and her sisters sent to the orphanage to be raised by nuns. Though these practices were not uncommon early in the century, the effect on Gabriella was profound and long-lasting. Sewing skills learned at the orphanage spark the nascent talent that is to be her destiny. Coupled with a burning ambition and ferocious work ethic, she later gains employment embellishing hats that are sent to Moulins for sale. Gabrielle’s designs gain a following, along with the moniker Coco, Gabrielle finally achieving her goal: Paris. Chronically following her own muse against the advice of others--her stubbornness
is legendary--Coco’s eventual detour into women’s fashion (and later the iconic perfume that bears her name) is irresistible, her reputation for innovation abetted by the series of wealthy gentlemen she meets
who support her efforts as a designer.
As Coco Chanel’s taste evolves into the understated, sophisticated couture embraced by wealthy and influential women, her acceptance into Parisian society is enhanced, her designs purchased by women seeking a relief from the restrictive corsets long in favor. Among notable contemporary personalities, Coco collects the artists, writers, and creative types who people her world throughout her life. While chronicling Coco’s rise to fashion icon, Gortner contrasts her financial and artistic accomplishments with the absence of family that haunts her, the men with whom she falls in love inevitably rich and irresistible
but never in a position to marry a woman who is essentially a “shopkeeper.”
Having nurtured a secret desire for marriage that is never fulfilled, the most poignant aspect of the novel is Chanel’s ability not only for constant reinvention but the need to turn a brave face to the world without a husband for comfort in the darkest hours. It is significant--and Gortner makes this point well--that Coco is a woman alone in the world, acutely conscious that each decision and its consequences are her own to bear, whether in matters of business or the heart. The greatest love she will experience is with Arthur Capel, who adores her but marries an aristocrat to carry on his family name. Heartbroken, Coco is inconsolable. It is her defining love affair, the source of the inverted C in her logo, a commemoration of her lover.
The occupation of Paris in World War II forces Coco’s grand business venture to come to a grinding halt, her beloved city overrun by the enemy. Ever pragmatic, Chanel makes decisions that will haunt her later, the taint of collaboration mingling with the scent of Chanel #5.
Much as Gortner expresses his love of fashion in his treatment of its iconic muse, he cannot ignore the mistakes of a creative woman whose haunted past contributes to a single-mindedness that allows her to rationalize outrageous behavior in the name of love or self-preservation. Coco changes the face of design with the bravery of her vision but fails to develop sensitivity to the true horror of the 20th century, the obscenity of Hitler’s madness. She survives to reinvent again. Though driven by time and expediency, Paris will never recover its innocence.