Gabrielle Chanel, the destitute country orphan who remade herself into Coco Chanel, the 20th century’s most celebrated designer, lived a life of grit and dreams. C. W. Gortner’s ambitious novel doesn’t just bring us a slice of her life, but rather takes on more than half a century: the cruel abandonment by the father she loved, her convent education, her life as a millionaire playboy’s pampered mistress. Her next step was another millionaire playboy, but she loved this one, a man who believed in her dream of opening a hat shop. It would have been easier for Gortner to end the book here, certainly before World War II, a time when Chanel (and many other Parisian elites) fraternized with the Nazis. By 1943 she was 60 years old, still beautiful but with sharp edges and involved in those complicated shades-of-gray relations with the conquering thugs – and fascism in general. To his credit Gortner forged on, giving us a complex story in which Chanel shines through as human, understandably prideful, blind when it served her purpose, vulnerable, and always chic and elegant.
Beyond the effortless and easy flow of the narrative, there’s a lot to love about this story. A standout for me was Chanel’s friend Misia Sert. Gortner shows how longtime friends can become as annoying and fundamental as family. He was exactly the right author to capture the essence of Chanel’s designs, having spent more than a decade in the fashion industry. That shows in this novel, which breathes Chanel’s style and panache in every sentence. My only criticism is that there isn’t a bank of photos in the book. If you feel the same, check out Gortner’s Pinterest page about Chanel, which is filled with far more photos than a publisher could ever include. Recommended.