Book Review — The Queen of Paris

1 Jul

This summer I am on a biographical novel reading kick. In my search for books with interesting women as the main character I came across The Queen of Paris by Pamela Binnings Ewen. I had read several of Ewen’s early novels and loved them, so I decided to give the book about fashion icon, Coco Chanel, a chance. I liked the book, but hated the character! LOL! See my thoughts below.

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?

After practicing law for many years in Houston, Texas, Pamela Binnings Ewen exchanged her partnership in the law firm of BakerBotts, L.L.P. for writing. She lives near New Orleans, Louisiana. Her latest book, released in April 2020, The Queen of Paris, a novel on Coco Chanel, received a Starred Review from Publisher’s Weekly and was ranked No. 1 in Hot New Spring Releases in historical fiction by Amazon Kindle. This is the explosive story of Chanel’s newly revealed secret life during the Nazi occupation of Paris in WWII.

Pamela is also the author of The Moon in the Mango Tree, awarded the 2012 Eudora Welty Memorial Award by the National League of American Pen Women, as well as a trilogy of novels on young women lawyers in New Orleans in the 1970’s — including Dancing on Glass, Chasing the Wind, and An Accidental Life. She also authored the Secret of the Shroud, and a non-fiction book, Faith on Trial, both now in second editions.

While practicing law Pamela served on the board of directors of Inprint, Inc., a non-profit organization supporting the literary arts in Houston, Texas, as well as on the Board of Directors of Junior Achievement in Houston. After retiring and moving to the New Orleans area, Pamela served on the board of directors of the New Orleans Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, The Tennessee Williams Festival, and as President of The Northshore Literary Society. In 2009 Pamela received the St. Tammany Parish President’s Arts Award as Literary Artist of the Year. Recently, Pamela was recognized by Marquis Who’s Who for Excellence in Law and Literature.

Pamela is the latest writer to emerge from a Louisiana Family recognized for its statistically improbable number of writers. Cousin, James Lee Burke, (the Dave Robichaux books) and a winner of the Edgar Award, wrote about the common ancestral grandfathers in his Civil War novel White Dove at Morning. Among other authors in the family are Andre Dubus II (The Bedroom), Andre Dubus III, The House of Sand and Fog) Elizabeth Nell Dubus (the Cajun trilogy), and Alafair Burke (the Samantha Kincaid mystery series).

My Impressions:

The Queen of Paris is a well-written biographical novel featuring the life of Coco Chanel. Told in flashbacks in Coco’s own voice and a third person narrative during WWII, it reveals the very interesting personality of the fashion icon. Don’t expect a flattering or even sympathetic handling of the main character though. Pamela Binnings Ewen portrays Coco with warts and all — and there are a lot of warts! Coco is shown to be a shrewd businesswoman determined to preserve her brand and her fortune. She is both savvy and naive, which seems at odds, but just adds to the complex and infuriating woman who was Coco. The flashbacks serve to give the reader background on her early life, as well as showing how Coco’s personality evolved. She was a woman of many contradictions — selfish, yet loyal, self-serving, yet sacrificing. I wavered between being sympathetic to what she endured and being disgusted at how she saved her livelihood. Coco has long been accused of being a Nazi sympathizer, and Ewen explores that. The result of this well-researched book is what feels like a balanced and accurate portrayal. Paris during Nazi occupation is depicted well, though Coco’s view is certainly different than many of her countrymen.

Did I like The Queen of Paris? Very much. Did I like the main character? Not at all! I think that is the strength of the novel. Ewen created a book that kept the pages turning even though the reader can’t help but hope the main character gets her comeuppance. 😉 Did Coco? You’ll have to read the book to find out. (Please note: this novel was written for the general market. There are adult situations described.)

Recommended.

Audience: adults.

(I purchased the audiobook from Audible. All opinions expressed are mine alone.)

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