December 2009

A fashionable romance

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There have always been novels that seem destined for the silver screen, their literary narratives inhabited by characters so vividly alive, they almost beg for a screenplay to set them free. Chris Greenhalgh’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is no exception, and a film adaptation (penned by the author) premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But the novel (originally published in the U.K. in 2003) is something to buzz about, too.

It is hard to resist the charms of a novel set in Paris and featuring a pair of star-crossed lovers whose creative genius produced such disparate classics as Chanel’s little black dress and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Much of the novel takes place during the summer of 1920, when Chanel, in the role of patron of the arts, invites Stravinsky; his ailing wife, Catherine; and their four children to stay at her country estate. When Stravinsky quickly accepts Chanel’s purportedly innocent offer to the financially bereft Russian exiles, the tubercular Catherine Stravinsky, confined to her sick bed, is tortured by the knowledge that her beloved husband is in the clutches of the gamine designer, who collects men like bolts of cotton, jersey and wool.

If the novel seems a bit contrived at times, with Greenhalgh reminding us a bit too often what emotions Chanel and Stravinsky are experiencing, the character of Catherine, the composer’s long-suffering wife, is exquisitely and realistically drawn. Though the reader is sure to feel a pang of sympathy or two for Chanel’s struggle to overcome the social stigma of her roots—she was an illegitimate child and orphan born into poverty—it is Catherine whom we find ourselves rooting for. Despite her physical limitations and having to bear the indignity of knowing Stravinsky is unfaithful to her under the same roof where she and her children are “guests” of his fiery mistress, Catherine is the most likeable character in this story. In the end, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky will strike a dissonant chord which is sure to resonate with readers—and send them scrambling to buy tickets at their local movie box office, too.

Karen Ann Cullotta writes from Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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