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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Book of the Year (so far!): The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This is a very clever and moving literary mystery which those who enjoy books such as Jane Eyre will love. I admit to thinking that it was contrived to appeal to a certain type of reader at first but the writing was so good and I became so involved in the mystery that I continued reading and I was glad that I did!

The heroine, Margaret Lea, a solitary biographer haunted by the loss of her twin sister, receives a letter from a famous writer, Vida Winter, asking her to write her biography. Margaret agrees on condition that Ms Winter, who has continually made up stories about her past, finally tells the truth.

When she arrives at Ms Winter's, Margaret becomes involved in the mystery of her past. The tale includes haunted houses, feral twins, mad adults and other odd characters. It is almost, but not quite, too over the top, because Setterfield keeps a tight control over it.

In the great tradition of all gothic mysteries, our heroine has to solve it. In doing so she also comes to terms with her own sadness and begins to find her own place in the world.

This is a memorable novel which moved me to tears and had much wisdom in it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Immortal Chanel: Coco The Life and Times of Gabrielle Chanel by Frances Kennett

It was Christmas Eve in Paris. The French novelist, Michael Deon, was dressing to go to dinner with his girlfriend one night when the famous dress-designer, Chanel, telephoned him and invited him to dine at the Hotel Ritz. The dining room was full so Chanel and Deon had supper in her room. Deon despaired of being able to join his girlfriend and stayed until past midnight when he returned alone to his hotel 'not in the least put out'. This was a few nights before Chanel died. Until her death she still retained great enchantment and charm.

Deon '..believes that none of her biographers have done justice to her extraordinary magnetism, her magical fairy-tale like quality, that literally held people captive.' Ms Kennett may be an exception. This is a very charming book which relates Chanel's story in a sympathetic, interesting and unusually philosophical way which suits the great designer's life. The lovely paintings and illustrations by Natacha Ledwidge add to the book's magic.

Chanel had a difficult childhood. Her mother died young and her father deserted his family, putting Chanel into an orphanage. She made friends with a cousin, Adeline, and finally her Aunt Julia took pity on the young girls, teaching them to sew and do housework.

She started off her career by attempting to sing in music halls and nightclubs but wasn't much good at singing. Very good-looking, she soon attracted a 'protector', an army officer, Etienne Balsan, but she denied having a sexual relationship with him. When Balsan retired and became a country gentleman, Chanel started to prefer one of his friends, a handsome Englishman, Boy Capel. He set her up in a hat shop which was the start of her long career.

Chanel's boyfriends are almost too many to mention by name - Boy Capel, the Russian Grand Duke Dmitri, the tortured poet, Paul Reverdy, the Duke of Westminster...the list goes on. She certainly had an interesting love-life! But it all ended in tragedy partly because her heart was really in her career and the type of men she was attracted to found that intimidating in those days. Some of them were also married and it was a bad idea for Chanel to try to get them to leave their wives.

Infamously one of her lovers was a German general and Chanel favoured the Nazis during the war. Even though she was a wonderful designer she was also considered a traitor.

Chanel's career was certainly illustrious. We owe her the little black dress; the distinctive Chanel suit; the invention of the modern swimsuit; the divine Chanel No. 5 and many more innovations.

She worked almost until her death and grew increasingly bad-tempered and alone, avoided by her old friends. Kennett writes that she never solved the problem that many women have to face - how to be happy and solitary.

This is well-worth reading for those interested in fashion and the history of costume design, or the life of a famous and interesting person.