Review: Chanel’s Riviera

Chanel’s Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944 by Anne de Courcy

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Maturity Level: 4

(content warnings: harm to children, holocaust)
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆

The Cote d’Azur in 1938 was a world of wealth, luxury, and extravagance, inhabited by a sparkling cast of characters including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Joseph P. Kennedy, Gloria Swanson, Colette, the Mitfords, Picasso, Cecil Beaton, and Somerset Maugham. The elite flocked to the Riviera each year to swim, gamble, and escape from the turbulence plaguing the rest of Europe. At the glittering center of it all was Coco Chanel, whose very presence at her magnificently appointed villa, La Pausa, made it the ultimate place to be. Born an orphan, her beauty and formidable intelligence allured many men, but it was her incredible talent, relentless work ethic, and exquisite taste that made her an icon.

But this wildly seductive world was poised on the edge of destruction. In a matter of months, the Nazis swooped down and the glamour of the pre-war parties and casinos gave way to the horrors of evacuation and the displacement of thousands of families during World War II. From the bitter struggle to survive emerged powerful stories of tragedy, sacrifice, and heroism.

Chanel’s Riviera is almost two books in one. Partly it is the story of Chanel’s Riviera home, La Pausa, and partly it is the story of France in World War II. While these two things are linked, the different narratives had very different tones and themes. The Chanel aspect of the book was like reading a decade’s worth of gossip magazines: affairs, fashion, betrayals, becoming rich and gambling it all away. The WWII half was like reading a war book: factual, full of first-hand and second-hand accounts, death, hunger, terrible deeds. Together they show a France that is both gilded and war-torn. Like Chanel, the country is far more complex than we make it out to be.

De Courcy’s writing and research are impeccable. Beautiful descriptions, attention to detail, full of little factiods that made me say “interesting!” to myself. And throughout with a readability that was pleasantly surprising. My first critique would be that there were far too many names to keep up with, as someone unfamiliar with the time. Perhaps either some individuals’ stories could have been left out or a person-glossary provided. My second is that more pictures were needed. This book is so heavily dependent on fashion, but it is incredibly difficult to Google the clothes Chanel was making in any particular year. While de Courcy’s writing was vivid, I wanted to see the iconic dresses and hats being written about. And while there are some pictures included, none were of fashion.

Overall, one’s enjoyment of this book is going to come down to interest. If you’re interested in fashion and history, you will enjoy this book. If you don’t you won’t. Personally this is neither a time period nor topic I’m particularly interested in, so I would never have picked this book myself. However, the writing was good enough that I felt like I learned something and enjoyed doing so at least a little.

5 thoughts on “Review: Chanel’s Riviera

  1. I’m sure it was great but I will never read any historical fiction about Coco Channel that puts her in any good light because I believe she was a Nazi collaborator, and we have more than enough evidence to know she was an anti-Semite.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was not historical fiction, but was in fact history. Non-fiction. It also addresses directly that Chanel was an anti-semite and the allegations of being a Nazi collaborator. The author concluded that it seems unlikely Chanel helped the Nazis in any way valuable, but that she certainly benefited from a close relationships (read an affair) with a Nazi official. The anti-semitism was not painted over, but portrayed exactly as problematic as it was, including showing ways in which it hurt her both professionally and personally. I thought the book did a good job showing both her faults and her virtues.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I certainly wouldn’t blame you for not wanting to read about an anti-semite, but it’s hard to learn much about WW2 (especially WW2 in France…) without quite a bit of anti-Jewish sentiment. If anything this book helped me understand how widespread anti-semitism was outstide of Germany all the way through the war.


        1. It’s funny, because since I was reading this book at hashtagged #Chanel on instagram, now I get all these ads for Chanel perfumes and clothes and purses that I could never afford, and wouldn’t buy even if I could. lol

          Liked by 1 person

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