Title: The Chanel Sisters
Author: Judithe Little
Publication Information: Graydon House. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN: 1525806386 / 978-1525806384
Book Source: I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review for the Fall 2020 historical fiction blog tour from Harlequin Trade Publishing.
Opening Sentence: "In later years, I would think back to that cold March day in 1897 at the convent orphanage in Aubazine."
Favorite Quote: "We didn't have to accept the lot we were given. Not ill-fitting uniforms. Not anything else. Not when we had initiative and our own tow hands. This was about more than the fit of a skirt or blouse. This was about the future, about the power I'd never felt before, all because of the cut of cloth and the placement of stitches."
***** BLOG TOUR *****
Two statements from the author's note:
- "While much is known about Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, little is know about her sister Antionette."
- "Throughout her life, Coco Chanel lied about her background and her family ... She was, in more ways than just fashion, an illusionist. Tales she'd told about her past and about her sisters may or may not have be truthful. I've based Antoinette's story on information from Coco's biographers, census and other records, as well as times in which she lived."
These statements set the context for this story, which is told from the perspective of Coco's younger sister Antoinette. The story spans from 1897 through 1921. Antoinette goes from being a child to a woman. The story goes from an orphanage in Aubazine to Paris and beyond. It goes through World War I.
I am, of course, familiar with the panache of the Chanel name. Who isn't? However, I have not read anything about Coco Chanel or the family. Although this is fiction, it is interesting to read about the transformation that takes place for - or rather, that is created by - these young women who dream of fineries in magazines to the household name symbolic of that style.
The Graces - Gabrielle, Antoinette, and Adrienne - as they are called at one point in their lives take different path to this goal, but the goal remains. Given the time and place, it is not surprising that many of the paths involve men and relationships. At the time, that was often the only acceptable path for a woman. They also change paths as doors open and close. Yet, the three sustain each other, making this also a book about sisterhood.
The theme that emerges throughout is one of ambition and survival. It is the climb from rags to riches and the drive to belong to elite or the élégante. It is about the search for something better. It is about defying the odds and defying the limits society sets on you. "Maybe great change didn't come with one bold move ... This was how you get form here to there, from charity case to élégante. You don't accept what you're told you are. You decide for yourself."
Of course, the theme of fashion runs throughout the book as well. The girls are hired out as seamstresses. They take it upon themselves to take apart and redo the uniforms they are assigned at the orphanage. The redesigned clothes are still the worn uniforms, but they fit. Gabrielle's original dream is to be singer, but her skill will a needle and thread is never too far. They study the magazines to see how the rich dress. And the hats! Oh my, the hats.
The fact that the book covers the period of World War I brings in another aspect of history. Much has been written about the rumored role of Coco Chanel during World War II. It was interesting to go earlier in history, even with a fictionalized account.
A lot of time and a lot of characters are covered in this book. However, the anchor of the Chanel sisters pulls the story together beginning to end.
About the AuthorJUDITHE LITTLE is the award-winning author of Wickwythe Hall. She earned a BA in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. She grew up in Virginia and now lives with her husband, three teenagers, and three dogs in Houston, Texas. Find her on Instagram, @judithelittle, and on Facebook, facebook.com/judithelittle.
About the BookFor fans of The Paris Wife, The Only Woman in the Room, and The Woman Before Wallis, a riveting historical novel narrated by Coco Chanel's younger sister about their struggle to rise up from poverty and orphanhood and establish what will become the world's most iconic fashion brand in Paris.
A novel of survival, love, loss, triumph—and the sisters who changed fashion forever
Antoinette and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel know they’re destined for something better. Abandoned by their family at a young age, they’ve grown up under the guidance of nuns preparing them for simple lives as the wives of tradesmen or shopkeepers. At night, their secret stash of romantic novels and magazine cutouts beneath the floorboards are all they have to keep their dreams of the future alive.
The walls of the convent can’t shield them forever, and when they’re finally of age, the Chanel sisters set out together with a fierce determination to prove themselves worthy to a society that has never accepted them. Their journey propels them out of poverty and to the stylish cafés of Moulins, the dazzling performance halls of Vichy—and to a small hat shop on the rue Cambon in Paris, where a boutique business takes hold and expands to the glamorous French resort towns.
But the sisters’ lives are again thrown into turmoil when World War I breaks out, forcing them to make irrevocable choices, and they’ll have to gather the courage to fashion their own places in the world, even if apart from each other.
Q&A with the Author
Q: I didn't know Coco had a sister. How did you come up with the idea for your novel?
A: When I read in a biography of Coco that she had a sister, I knew right away I wanted to write about her. A lot of books have been written about Coco, but none have been written from the point of view of Antoinette. I thought that the sister of Coco Chanel might have an interesting story to tell, and it turns out that she did.
Q: Explain the staying power and interest in (anything) Chanel?
A: I think that Chanel is the symbol for reinvention and the idea that you can be whoever you want to be and that has a universal appeal.
Q: Do you plan your books in advance or let them develop as you write?
A: They are planned in the sense that they’re based on historical events so there’s already a timeline in place and I know generally what happens. The characters themselves develop as I write.
Q: Have you ever had a character take over a story, and if so, who was it and why?
A: I’ve had minor characters take over small parts of a story such as the baron at Royallieu (I attribute the kite dance idea to him). Arturo also seemed to take over the scenes he was in and tell me what he was going to do instead of vice-versa.
Q: Which one of The Chanel Sisters’s characters was the hardest to write and why?
A: Julia-Berthe was the hardest to write because of the three sisters, she’s the one about whom the least is known.
Q: What does a day in the life of Judithe Little look like?
A: Busy! I’m a lawyer so during the day I take care of my law firm work and in the evenings I typically write or do other book-related activities. Mixed in is typical stuff like grocery shopping, errands, and driving my youngest who is a high school sophomore here and there.
Q: What do you use to inspire you when you get Writer’s Block?
A: This may sound strange but I rearrange furniture or shelves or redecorate in some way. Maybe it’s the new perspective but changing my surroundings seems to get the juices flowing again.
Q: Do you have stories on the back burner that are just waiting to be written?
A: I usually have one or two waiting in the wings.
Q: What advice would you give budding authors about publishing?
A: I think it’s important to have critique partners or a critique group. Mine has been invaluable to me. Persistence and thick skin help too.
Q: What was the last thing you read?
A: Bryn Turnball’s The Woman Before Wallis which I loved.
Q: Book you've bought just for the cover?
A: Susan Meissner’s Secrets of a Charmed Life because I loved the color of the green dress and the way the figure of the woman was interposed with the river and London. More recently, Jane Smiley’s Perestroika because it has a horse and the Eiffel Tower on the cover--two of my favorite things.
Q: Tell us about what you’re working on now.
A: I’m working on a new novel that takes place in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and is told from the perspective once again of someone close to Coco Chanel but who was famous in her own right.
Social LinksAuthor website: http://www.judithelittle.com/
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