Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Book Review: Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin

Pages: 384
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: May 21, 2019
Publisher: Delacorte
Source:  Publisher for review
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "Nothing bad can happen at the Ritz; inside its gilded walls every woman looks beautiful, every man appears witty. Favored guests like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor walk through its famous doors to be welcomed and pampered by Blanche Auzello and her husband, Claude, the hotel's director. The Auzellos are the mistress and master of the Ritz, allowing the glamour and glitz to take their minds off their troubled marriage, and off the secrets that they keep from their guests--and each other.  Until June 1940, when the German army sweeps into Paris, setting up headquarters at the Ritz. Suddenly, with the likes of Hermann Goring moving into suites once occupied by royalty, Blanche and Claude must navigate a terrifying new reality. One that entails even more secrets. One that may destroy the tempestuous marriage between this beautiful, reckless American and her very proper Frenchman. For the falsehoods they tell to survive, and to strike a blow against their Nazi "guests," spin a web of deceit that ensnares everything and everyone they cherish.  But one secret is shared between Blanche and Claude alone--the secret that, in the end, threatens to imperil both of their lives, and to bring down the legendary Ritz itself.  Based on true events, Mistress of the Ritz is a taut tale of suspense wrapped up in a love story for the ages, the inspiring story of a woman and a man who discover the best in each other amid the turbulence of war."

It's the 1940s and its truly a troubling time for Parisians.  The Germans have taken over their beloved city and are seen marching through the town.  The Nazis have set up their headquarters at the famous Ritz.  Claude Auzello runs this opulent hotel along with his American wife, Blanche.  They mix and mingle with the best Paris has to offer including the Windsors, the Fitzgeralds, Chanel, Hemingway, Picasso, and more, but that has all changed once the Germans took over. Claude finds himself playing a dangerous game of keeping the Germans happy, but also staying loyal to his countrymen.  As the years go by, Claude and Blanche's relationship suffers and with the stress of the Nazis at the Ritz, their marriage crumbles even more.  Blanche and Claude are hiding major secrets and not just the usual kind; the kind of secrets that could cause major problems for not only them, but the hotel as well.  Can their marriage weather the occupation of Paris and will they come out unscathed or will they find themselves, along with Paris, broken in many parts and irrevocably changed.  Melanie Benjamin's Mistress of the Ritz is a powerful historical novel that brings the true story of the Auzellos to life.  Fans of World War II fiction won't want to miss this one.

I really loved Blanche from the beginning in Mistress of the Ritz. She is an outgoing American set against a more conservative Paris....conservative in the sense that women have their place amongst the men; in fact, Blanche couldn't originally drink in the hotel's bar since she's a woman.  I think how she challenged Claude's "rules" regarding women and their duties and she wanted more for her life than just drinking at the hotel with fancy guests.  Once Blanche meets Lily, a member of the Resistance, things change drastically for her and she is aware of a different side of Paris during the Occupation.  Blanche also is hiding some major details regarding her past and slowly these secrets come of the surface.

Claude was a frustrating character in Mistress of the Ritz. I didn't always agree with his choices, but things are a little more complex than they initially appear with him.  At first I wrote him off as being a chauvinist who adhered to major double standards, but I realized that there's so much more to him than I initially thought.  I still didn't think he was swoon worthy by any standards, but as the story went on, I respected him more and more.

Benjamin tells the story by flashing back to when Claude and Blanche first met in the 1920s and then to a more stressful time of the 1940s.  I liked this technique, because not only are readers privy to a lot of the back story in their relationship, we were also aware of the different secrets that slowly float to the surface or are alluded to as time goes on.

The secondary characters were outstanding in Mistress of the Ritz. Whether it be jovial Hemingway grabbing another drink at the bar, icy Coco Chanel, or the Ritz itself, I thought it was all well done. Benjamin truly made me want to visit Paris and I really never had a strong desire prior to reading this novel.  I was shocked by Benjamin's portrayal of Chanel, but after some "googling" of my own, I come to realize that perhaps she WAS a Nazi sympathizer and I found this to be upsetting. I also researched a bit more about the Auzellos after reading this novel and loved that Benjamin truly did her research.  You know the saying that the truth is stranger than fiction? I think that is the case here with Blanche and Claude. Their story is captivating, heartbreaking, and utterly strange at the end.

If you love WWII fiction, you must check out Mistress of the Ritz. It is one of the best historical novels of the year.


8 comments:

  1. I love both of these eras of time so much and the characters sound great too. I think this would be something I'd enjoy.

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    1. I hope you can read it soon! I really enjoyed it. Thanks for visiting, Jenea.

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  2. I just finished listening to this on audio - the narrator was great (although I always find that when I listen to books, it's much more obvious to me when an author is very repetitive in their writing). I was a little shocked by the end of the book, and the author's note was a bit surprising, to find out it was based on a real couple.

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    1. Right??! That ending! I love that it was based on the real couple- so fascinating! Thanks for visiting, Angela. I am glad to hear that enjoyed the book, too.

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  3. I love reading about this time period, so I am looking forward to this one! Glad you enjoyed it!

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    1. I really enjoyed this time period too. I hope you can read this one soon. Thanks for visiting, Michele!

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  4. I like a star-studded cast! But it sounds like I might encounter some problems with our couple. They sound real, regardless.

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    1. Yes, totally and then when I googled them, I became even more interested! Fascinating lives for sure. Thanks for visiting, Joy!

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