An American ex-flapper and a Parisian hotelier weather the German takeover of the Paris Ritz.
Benjamin’s new novel is a lively portrait of the opulent grand hotel which drew Picasso, Hemingway, Cole Porter—and Hermann Göring. In fact, more than a year before June 14, 1940, when invading Germans marched down the Champs Elysees, Göring and others were visiting Paris hotels to vet future Nazi headquarters. As the Occupation wears on, hotel director Claude Auzello and his American wife, Blanche, find it increasingly difficult to maintain their facade as the happily married team who run the Ritz. Their relationship was already challenged by Claude’s announcement that he had reserved Thursday nights for his mistress. In his insistence that infidelity is a French male privilege, Claude can be insufferable, and Blanche, over the years, has been known to desert him, temporarily. On one such escapade, she befriends Lily, a young radical who goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War before returning to Paris to draw Blanche into the Resistance. Blanche is disappointed by Claude’s apparent willingness to toady to the Nazis who have become the Ritz’s most privileged guests (along with a certain high-profile collaboratrice, Coco Chanel). The narrative ricochets between the 1920s, when the couple met, and the novel’s present: the Occupation and its antecedents. Thanks to alternating points of view, readers are mostly privy to the secrets Blanche and Claude keep from one another. However, the delay in revealing the most critical secret of all, far from enhancing suspense, hamstrings the full exposition of Blanche as a character. The Auzellos were real people, and the facts of their lives are only a Google away. As Benjamin points out in her author’s note, the Auzellos’ story, though captivating, has not been often told, and the record is sparse. Benjamin hews closely to what is known, but the fully realized humanity of the Auzellos gets lost in the unknown—the realm where novelistic imagination is required.
The Ritz itself is the most well-rounded character here.