Book Review for “Mistress of the Ritz” by Melanie Benjamin.
Benjamin’s latest novel is about Blanche Auzello, the American woman who in 1924 married Claude, the manager of the Ritz in Paris. In the years of recovery after the Great War, Paris was host to some of the richest and most famous people from across the globe, and the number one place to be and be seen in Paris was the Ritz. When Blanche arrived in Paris, she was hoping to kick-start her film career, but instead, she entered into a whirlwind romance, that culminated in their marrying, without a thought to how very different they were. When the winds of another war begin to blow, neither Blanche nor Claude are willing to leave either Paris or the Ritz, and Blanche being secretly Jewish when Nazis start showing up at the hotel, is going to complicate things, even if she is the “Mistress of the Ritz”. (Thanks for the free book, @PRHGlobal/@prhinternational.)
My regular readers know that my favorite literary genre is fast becoming biographical, historical, women’s fiction. I’m also fascinated with the World War eras, so when these two come together, there’s no way I’m going to pass up an opportunity to read that novel. This is always especially true when it comes to someone about whom I knew nothing before reading this book, which is exactly the case here. Mind you, it might be a good idea to resist the temptation of reading a real biography of Blanche before you’ve finished this novel, because… you know… they’ll have spoilers. But even if you do, there is very little you’ll find there that can ruin a reader’s experience of this book.
You see, this is one of those books that is just so gripping, so compelling that you’ll just not want to put it down. I’m serious here. Remember, I’m a slow reader (because of my mild dyslexia), and I read this book in record time, for me! (If I wasn’t dyslexic, I might have finished this in a day or two at best!) To begin with, Benjamin’s prose is just stunning, if not opulent at times. Not that it’s all that poetic or anything, but it just flows so naturally and with such a clear connection to the characters here, that you can’t help becoming sympathetic to each of the characters, and picturing each of the glorious Paris locations described, particularly the Ritz, itself. What really struck me here was that all of the scenes that take place inside or around the Ritz felt as luxuriously written as the place itself, but when the stark reality of Paris under Nazi occupation was described, the narrative felt colder, more ominous. That’s how you write atmospherically and hats off to Benjamin for achieving this practically genius feat.
Benjamin’s conceit here is to take the (very few) well-known facts about these personalities and draw out from that, in order to build up the actions that went into their every-day lives. This is, of course, the essence of any good biographical fiction novel. For example, we don’t know for a fact that Blanche and Claude had a tumultuous marriage; Benjamin simply assumed that a fiery, American wannabe-actress, flapper who marries the staunch and stalwart Frenchman who manages the most luxurious hotel in Paris, could easily have had some personality clashes. We also don’t know if either Blanche or Claude ever helped the French Resistance, but it is totally reasonable to think they both did. We also know very little about the woman called Lily Kharmayeff, except that she did in fact know Blanche. Here Benjamin builds her up into a rebellious little fighter (which reminded me a little of Kate Quinn’s totally fictional character Nina, in “The Huntress”).
Excuse my conjecture here but I also felt that Benjamin used the Auzellos’ rocky relationship almost as a mirror to reflect the essence of this war. You see, in the way Benjamin describes them, while Claude and Blanche loved each other, they also knew practically nothing about each other. Because of this, they both depended upon seeing each other through the typical stereotypes of a Frenchman and an American actress/flapper, for both the good and the bad. When it came to the negative parts, they both seemed to do things that would allow themselves to live down to the other’s lowest expectations. In fact, what Benjamin has built here is yet another type of resistance between the two of them, in parallel to their anti-Nazi work. I found this to be an absolutely fascinating aspect of this novel.
With all these kudos, I’m sure my readers and wondering if I found any faults with this book. Actually, there were a couple of tiny things that felt slightly out of place, but they were so minor and fleeting that they were almost immediately forgotten and forgiven in light of everything else I found here (not limited to her making me cry, more than once, by the way). This is why I have no choice but to give this novel a full five out of five stars and highly recommend it to all lovers of biographical, historical fiction. Thank you, Melanie Benjamin, for writing this “great big fat juicy story” and for revealing what you call the “emotional truth” of this very special and mysterious couple!
Penguin Random House released “Mistress of the Ritz” by Melanie Benjamin on May 21, 2019. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers (once again) for inviting me to read this novel via NetGalley.