Mistress of the Ritz: A Novel
Melanie Benjamin has a wonderful track record of finding lesser known characters and stories from history and bringing them to life in fiction. In Mistress of the Ritz, she does so again with the fascinating story of Claude and Blanche Auzello. Claude is the manager of the Paris Ritz, married to American actress, Blanche, after a whirlwind romance in 1923. The couple’s relationship is tested many times over the years, but never more so than in World War II, when as a result of the Nazi occupation of France, the Ritz hotel is commandeered by German soldiers.
Blanche and Claude are very different characters. Blanche is impulsive, generous and unpredictable, whereas Claude is buttoned-up and responsible, priding himself on his trustworthiness. Despite their differences, they muddle along together, working and living in the Ritz and enjoying its luxury—until the war changes everything.
With the Germans come many challenges. Parisians struggle for supplies and to live safely within occupied territory. Nazi policies against the Jewish population take effect in France, and the staff at the Ritz struggle when colleagues go missing and everyone is forced to cow-tow to the ‘haricot verts’—as they call the German soldiers. Survival and resistance are paramount, but Blanche and Claude struggle to understand each other in this time of great crisis.
Mistress of the Ritz is a dramatic and passionate story with vibrant characters facing great adversity. Benjamin brings the trauma of the Nazi occupation to vivid life in a narrative that moves back and forth between the different perspectives of husband and wife, and also through time, revealing the ups and downs of the Auzellos’ relationship before the war.
With some very moving scenes and deeply believable and brave characters, Mistress of the Ritz is a rich and rewarding read.