An homage to a couture icon whose influence is still powerful today.

MADEMOISELLE CHANEL

An admiring portrait of the designer who first modernized women’s wear, told in the first person as she looks back over her life.

Gabrielle Chanel came from humble beginnings: Her father, a peddler, abandoned his two sons and three daughters after their mother died, and she and her sisters were taken in by nuns. Eventually, an aunt offers the Chanel sisters a home, where they help with the family millinery business. Chanel soon tires of slaving in a shop and seeks her fortune as a cafe chanteuse with the stage name Coco. A wealthy lover, Balsan, launches her career in fashion: She designs hats for his friends, courtesans from the Paris demimonde. At a race track, she meets Arthur Capel, aka “Boy,” who will prove to be the love of her life. With his help, she opens a Paris atelier. Departing from belle epoque corsets and bustles, Chanel’s first designs, separates based on menswear with a neutral palette and a slim silhouette, catch on almost immediately with rich women in Paris, Deauville, Biarritz and beyond. Coco amasses great wealth and makes friends among the artistic elite of France, including Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Serge Diaghilev. After World War I, Boy dies in a car crash, and Coco becomes even more driven. She develops a scent, Chanel No. 5, derived from the signature perfume of the assassinated czarina of Russia, and signs a contract to distribute it worldwide. As more lovers, among them an impoverished Romanov and the Duke of Westminster, enter and depart her life, she builds a lavish house in southern France and enjoys a brief sojourn in Hollywood. In her 50s as World War II and the Nazi occupation of France loom, Coco ponders her legacy and her perennially single state. Though the book is well-written and historically accurate, dramatic tension would have been better served if the fictional Coco could have demonstrated a few more character flaws and human foibles rather than being so very competent in meeting every challenge.

An homage to a couture icon whose influence is still powerful today.

Pub Date: March 17, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-06-235640-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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