Friday, April 24, 2020

Book Review: Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin

´(...) once you enter the Ritz, you breathe a little more freely, indulge yourself in ways you wouldn´t anywhere else. Because the Ritz will keep you safe - you have no choice but to believe it´.

This is not how I intended to spend my solitary reading day. Yes, it involved a book, but not Mistress of the Ritz. Not for the most part of it, anyway. My plan was to start reading it until my Kindle is charged for going through a non-fiction book I was burning to read for a long time. 
As a historian myself, I keep a polite distance to historical fiction. I do love history, I do love fiction and the combination of two, but I am well aware of misrepresentations, historical errors, myths and the conundrum of risks that are endangering such genre. In the end, I might spend double the time to check the facts and expose the errors. In addition, when it comes to fiction placed during the WWII I am double cautious. I´ve read, was told and heard real stories compared to which fiction, no matter how beautiful, sounds disgraceful.
Somehow, Mistress of the Ritz caught me and I couldn´t let it until the very end. It is based on real people and true stories, featuring the couple Blanche-Claude Auzello, he being the director of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Blanche, an American, come to Paris looking for adventure, Claude fell in love with her and fought for her with an Egyptian prince. The Paris got took over by the Germans, some of their top military hosted at the Ritz. A hotel that attracted the most interesting - sometimes despicable - gallery of characters, from rebels like Hemingway and Picasso to Coco Chanel and her German lovers. This book has passion, politics, suspense, drama and moral questioning. All those aspects are usually heavy burdens for a literary construction but somehow Melanie Benjamin used the power of words to create humanly approachable worlds.
While trying to accommodate each other within the couple they were trying to build and maintain, things bigger than life were taking place. Jews were rounded up at Vél d´Hiv by their French compatriots, the French Resistance was actively sabotaging the Germans, networks of spies and collaborators were built on both sides. Both Claude and Blanche will have their share, of limited success and pain, stuck between professional obligations and moral choices.
I´ve found the story very carefully elaborated, cautious yet with a strong human message. The characters in the book, all of them, are portrayed in their multiple colours, beyond the black vs. white temptation - because times are harsh and no one really have time to ponder the shades. Melanie Benjamin writes with a human elegance and balance that it´s hard to maintain when delved in the stories of those times, but her success makes the book a literary achievement in a genre covering a complex historical period.

Rating: 5 stars

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