Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin

Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin
Published May 2019 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
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 Goëring moving into suites once occupied by royalty, Blanche and Claude must navigate a terrifying new reality. One that entails even more secrets and lies. One that may destroy the tempestuous marriage between this beautiful, reckless American and her very proper Frenchman. For in order to survive—and strike a blow against their Nazi “guests”—Blanche and Claude must 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.

Blanche and Claude Auzello
My Thoughts:
The world is full of people who have interesting stories. Some of them are famous, some are well known in their own sphere, others are almost forgotten to time. Melanie Benjamin has a knack of finding the people at the edges of fame and bringing their stories to life: Vinnie Bump (Mrs. Tom Thumb), Alice Liddell (Alice In Wonderland), Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Blanche Auzello is remembered because of her connection to fame, the fame of Hotel Ritz in Paris, a hotel known for its glamour, famous clientele, and the curious mingling, during World War II, of the rich and the Nazis who had set up headquarters in the Ritz.

Only a skeleton of Blanche's history remains for historians and that's where Benjamin's ability to weave a story comes into play. Benjamin has created a story of a hasty marriage between two people who seemed drawn to each other but who were unwilling to compromise and unable to communicate with each other. The arrival of the Nazis turned the heat up on all of that.

I'm not entirely sure how a feel about Benajmin's light touch early in the book. I don't really need Benjamin to tell me what was happening to the people who were pulled out of their homes and disappeared. And I understand that, at the Ritz, things were not so desperate as they were in other parts of the city. Still, it seemed strange to read a book about occupied Paris without feeling overwhelmed by sadness about what was happening to the people of France.

Benjamin's focus, though, is on Blanche and Claude and the things they do to fight for the country they both love. The atrocities that the Nazis were committing are a part of the book but the real fear and horror doesn't come into play until late in the book, after Benjamin has built the tension around her central characters. And once she's built up the terror of the Nazi occupation, Benjamin doesn't shy away from the atrocities and the suffering nor the desperation those who remained safe felt. Nor does she shy away from the aftereffects of what happened once the Nazi's are driven out of Paris. There is no real "happily-ever-after." The citizens of France may have heeded Charles de Gaulle's advice and focused on moving forward after the war. But, as happy as the reunions were, the scars remained.

As with all of Benjamin's books, Mistress of the Ritz would make an excellent book club selection. There is a lot here to discuss including infidelity, secrets, collaboration with enemies, marriage, friendship, heroism, and anti-Semitism. I raced through this one and recommend it, particularly for fans of historical fiction.

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