Book Review Monday

Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, by Hal Vaughan

Book description: Coco Chanel created the look of the modern woman and was the high priestess of couture.

She believed in simplicity, and elegance, and freed women from the tyranny of fashion. She inspired women to take off their bone corsets and cut their hair. She used ordinary jersey as couture fabric, elevated the waistline, and created bell-bottom trousers, trench coats, and turtleneck sweaters.

In the 1920s, when Chanel employed more than two thousand people in her workrooms, she had amassed a personal fortune of $15 million and went on to create an empire.

Jean Cocteau once said of Chanel that she had the head of “a little black swan.” And, added Colette, “the heart of a little black bull.”

At the start of World War II, Chanel closed down her couture house and went across the street to live at the Hôtel Ritz. Picasso, her friend, called her “one of the most sensible women in Europe.” She remained at the Ritz for the duration of the war, and after, went on to Switzerland.

For more than half a century, Chanel’s life from 1941 to 1954 has been shrouded in vagueness and rumor, mystery and myth. Neither Chanel nor her many biographers have ever told the full story of these years.

Now Hal Vaughan, in this explosive narrative—part suspense thriller, part wartime portrait—fully pieces together the hidden years of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s life, from the Nazi occupation of Paris to the aftermath of World War II.

Vaughan reveals the truth of Chanel’s long-whispered collaboration with Hitler’s high-ranking officials in occupied Paris from 1940 to 1944. He writes in detail of her decades-long affair with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, “Spatz” (“sparrow” in English), described in most Chanel biographies as being an innocuous, English-speaking tennis player, playboy, and harmless dupe—a loyal German soldier and diplomat serving his mother country and not a member of the Nazi party.

In Vaughan’s absorbing, meticulously researched book, Dincklage is revealed to have been a Nazi master spy and German military intelligence agent who ran a spy ring in the Mediterranean and in Paris and reported directly to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, right hand to Hitler.

The book pieces together how Coco Chanel became a German intelligence operative; how and why she was enlisted in a number of spy missions; how she escaped arrest in France after the war, despite her activities being known to the Gaullist intelligence network; how she fled to Switzerland for a nine-year exile with her lover Dincklage. And how, despite the French court’s opening a case concerning Chanel’s espionage activities during the war, she was able to return to Paris at age seventy and triumphantly resurrect and reinvent herself—and rebuild what has become the iconic House of Chanel.

My review: In truth, after reading with Sleeping With the Enemy, I think that the most exciting part of Chanel’s life was her work as an iconic fashion designer, not as a Nazi spy. No big surprise there. Even though Vaughan did painstaking research to show this rather unpleasant side of Chanel’s history, it just wasn’t really that exciting. She was sleeping with a German, not the only Frenchwoman to do such a thing during the four-year occupation of France. And she tried to use her contacts in England to broker an end of the war, presumably with a better end result for Germany than the one that came about. It hardly seems as sinister as implied.

I didn’t know that Chanel was a rampant anti-Semite, certainly an unpleasant thing that seems to be glossed over when speaking about her. But for me, I loved reading about the glitzy glamourous life of Paris in the ’20s, the life of the rich and famous and the scandalous affairs they all seemed to be wrapped up in. Which, in fact, was the largest part of the book, so I ended up being pretty happy. By the time WWII rolls around, Chanel is old and desperately unhappy, looking for one last love affair. It was kind of seedy, not the luxurious life she had before the war. It kind of made me sad, like a reminder of our inevitable devolution into nothingness. There. I found this book about Chanel to be rather existential.

 

Where She Went, by Gayle Forman

Book description: It’s been three years since Mia walked out of Adam’s life.

And three years he’s spent wondering why.

When their paths cross again in New York City, Adam and Mia are brought back together for one life-changing night.

Adam finally has the opportunity to ask Mia the questions that have been haunting him. But will a few hours in this magical city be enough to lay their past to rest, for good – or can you really have a second chance at first love?

My review: Yay, another Gayle Forman book! This is the sequel to the tearjerker If I Stay, following the ghost of a girl who’s family dies in a car accident and she decides whether or not to stick around.

Three years later, *spoiler alert!*, obviously she’s decided to stay. And her relationship with Adam has fallen to pieces, with the two of them living on opposite sides of the country, both finding exceptional amounts of fame for their music.

This didn’t work for me as well as If I Stay – I mean, I barely cried! Not to say this was a bad book, but told in Adam’s voice, to me, it came off as a little whiny. I think any book about a rock star who complains about his life ends up in danger of this. But the resolution is nice, and I like the full-on hipster tour of New York we’re given.

I was just thinking about how I’ve always claimed to not like character-driven novels, preferring plot-based ones, but these new voices in young adult that I’m adoring are proving me wrong. Both Gayle Forman and John Green are creating these amazing characters that get into your gut. And it doesn’t matter if nothing really happens – nearly all of Forman’s books take place over the course of a day or several days. They are absolutely enthralling. So while Where She Went doesn’t quite hold up to the original book, it’s only because If I Stay was such an enormous powerhouse. This is so worth the read, if only for closure after that first gut-wrenching read.

Word of the day:

Simian: of or pertaining to an ape or monkey; characteristic of apes of monkeys: long simian fingers

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