Abandoned by their family years before, Gabrielle and Antoinette Chanel grow up under the guidance of pious nuns preparing them for simple lives as the wives of tradesmen or shopkeepers. At night, their secret stash of romantic novels and magazine cutouts beneath the floorboards are all they have to keep their dreams of the future alive. The walls of the convent can’t shield them forever, and when they’re finally of age, the Chanel sisters set out together with a fierce determination to prove themselves worthy to a society that has never accepted them.
It was refreshing to read about the humble beginning of famous fashion designer, Gabríel (Coco) Chanel, through the eyes of her obscure sister, Antoinette. Much of Antoinette’s story was imagined, as there are few historical details about her life. That’s disappointing, because Ninette, as Coco called her, was largely responsible for the success of the Chanel brand, and I found her character to be the most interesting. I wanted to know more about her and less about Coco, who wiggled herself to the upper echelons of European society, in large part because of her relationships with men with money and influence.
I enjoyed the overall pacing of the novel, which had significantly different content than another recently published novel, Mademoiselle Chanel, which I read back in 2015. In both books, Coco is a larger-than-life presence and a highly successful businesswoman. In The Chanel Sisters, Coco was presented practically as a magical being who worked and played hard, and turned everything she touched into gold. And even though she had many affairs, it was as if she did no wrong. Historians agree Coco collaborated with the Nazis. A fact that is conspicuously absent in The Chanel Sisters.
I adored the ending. Very poetic and touching. No spoiler here; you’ll need to read it for yourself. 4 stars.