An electrifying novel based on the real life of Coco Chanel, The Queen of Paris reveals an unseen side to the celebrated icon as she trades fashion for espionage during World War II to protect her name, her business, and her legend.
Legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel is revered for her sophisticated style—the iconic little black dress—and famed for her intoxicating perfume Chanel No. 5. Yet behind the public persona is a complicated woman of intrigue, shadowed by mysterious rumors. The Queen of Paris, the new novel from award-winning author Pamela Binnings Ewen, vividly imagines the hidden life of Chanel during the four years of Nazi occupation in Paris in the midst of WWII—as discovered in recently unearthed wartime files.
Coco Chanel could be cheerful, lighthearted, and generous; she also could be ruthless, manipulative, even cruel. Against the winds of war, with the Wehrmacht marching down the Champs-Élysées, Chanel finds herself residing alongside the Reich’s High Command in the Hotel Ritz. Surrounded by the enemy, Chanel wages a private war of her own to wrestle full control of her perfume company from the hands of her Jewish business partner, Pierre Wertheimer. With anti-Semitism on the rise, he has escaped to the United States with the confidential formula for Chanel No. 5. Distrustful of his intentions to set up production on the outskirts of New York City, Chanel fights to seize ownership. The House of Chanel shall not fall.
While Chanel struggles to keep her livelihood intact, Paris sinks under the iron fist of German rule. Chanel—a woman made of sparkling granite—will do anything to survive. She will even agree to collaborate with the Nazis in order to protect her darkest secrets. When she is covertly recruited by Germany to spy for the Reich, she becomes Agent F-7124, code name: Westminster. But why? And to what lengths will she go to keep her stormy past from haunting her future?
I am not normally drawn to stories where the antagonist is the protagonist, but I overruled myself because I’ve always been fascinated by Coco Chanel.
The Queen of Paris by Pamela Binnings Ewen focuses on the life of Coco during Nazi-occupied Paris. While it starts out slow, the pacing soon picks up and could easily be read over a leisurely weekend.
I found it interesting that the story switches between third and first person. The third person chapters are set during the 1940s, where we find an older, cynical and selfish Coco. In reading the first person scenes, we meet a young Coco some twenty years before: in love, naive, scared. The change in POV really works well for me because it made me understand why Coco became the woman she did.
Earlier in her life, when Coco was young, poor and trying to stay afloat, she fell deeply in love with an Englishman, Boy Capel. Boy professed to love her as well, but then he did the unthinkable. He married someone else, someone proper, someone with a good lineage (Coco was poor, orphaned, with no good family connections), but kept her as his mistress. You can imagine how much this must have broken Coco’s heart and how this part of her life lead her to be ambitious, independent and to focus on herself for the rest of her life.
Very early on in the story we learn that Coco is passionate about two things: her nephew and her perfume, Chanel No. 5. These two passions are why she goes down the path of becoming a Nazi collaborator.
Her beloved nephew (rumored to be her son with Boy Capel), becomes a prisoner of war of the Germans and his life hangs by a thread. For Coco, there is no greater love than the love she feels for her nephew. The Nazis promise to help her if she, in turn, helps them. This takes her down the unsavory path of joining forces with the Nazis. She also asks for their help to take back the majority shares of the company from her Jewish partner, Pierre Wertheimer, by using new Nazi laws to her favor.
The author wrote the story in such a way that at times, I was left feeling very sorry for Coco. Then there were times where I found myself very angry with Coco. The storytelling and writing is spectacular. Emotionally tense and gripping at times. I easily lost myself within the vivid worlds of the prewar south of France and the dreary, dark and cold Nazi-occupied Paris. But just when I was feeling sorry for Coco, her selfish actions snapped me out of it. She revealed herself to be an antisemite and ignorant of what Paris was going through under the Nazis. She focused only on herself and her business.
I loved reading this fictionalized account of Coco’s life in Nazi-occupied Paris. Should you read this book? If you enjoy historical fiction with a strong but controversial female main character then, yes, I think this book might be for you.
Thank you very much to NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing for a free copy of this book. All opinions are my own. xoxo, Jane
(Top image via NetGalley, bottom image via Pexels.com)