The Chanel Sisters, by Judithe Little (And Book Club Questions at the End, by Minette)
Wonderfully written and fantastically portrayed, The Chanel Sisters, is truly one of those books I didn’t want to put down or to end. Even better than Little’s debut novel, Wickwythe Hall, which was a masterpiece in itself, this story holds a bit of scandal and intrigue that has you routing for the women’s suffrage movement. I’ve never been more intrigued about the life of Coco Chanel. I highly recommend the Audible version. The reader had an amazing French accent that put me right in the center of early 1900’s France. With the story telling ability of Sara Waters and Philippa Gregory, Judith Little takes a fictional turn at spinning the life of Coco Chanel through the eyes of her younger sister, Antoinette. Impoverished, struggling, with the desire to be ‘better’, the Chanel sisters are the true winners against the societal rules of their time. Romance has never been so poignant. I can hardly wait to see what page in history this author turns to next! I can’t recommend The Chanel Sisters enough. Delightfully BBC material.
(So far, I haven’t found official questions for this book, so I formulated a few for my neighborhood book club.)
The Chanel Sisters, by Judithe Little
BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS AND DISCUSSION by Minette Lauren
(Spoiler alert! Don’t read the questions until you have read the book!)
1.The story starts in Aubazine France, after the death of the mother, when all three girls (Gabrielle (Coco), Antoinette, and Julia) are abandoned at the orphanage by their father. How do you think you would have fared in the shoes of the Chanel sisters, being separated from their two brothers? The boys were given to a peasant family as free laborers. Who do you think fared better in that situation — the males or the females?
2.Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel’s story is told through the eyes of Antoinette, but Julia is also her sister. What happens to Julia and why do you think Antoinette’s vision was more appealing to the author/reader? What do you think about Gabrielle statement, that she wanted to be something better?
3.Where do you see early impressions that possibly led Gabrielle Chanel down the path to fashion? What did she really longed to be? Their aunt, Adrienne, was only a year older than Coco and made a big impression on them. When their paternal grandmother took them for a visit, do you think their time in the park, watching the “Elegante” might have driven the girls in a certain direction?
4.Raised in a convent in Aubazine, why were Gabrielle and Antoinette moved to another convent in Moulins? What do you think their impressions were of the uniforms for the wealthy verses the poor? In an attempt to blend in, the girls tailored their own uniforms. Gabrielle was very particular about how clothes fit, and the nuns were impressed. Do you think this experience made Gabriella understand how people judged importance by attire? Was this possibly the first instance where we see her need to be recognized? Isn’t it interesting that she resists her artistic talents as a means of success and only uses it as a means to get by?
5.Coco wanted to be a singer and paid for lessons while she was a seamstress. It was at this time she met Etienne who encouraged her to sing. After spending all her money on lessons, and trying hard for years to get a role that might shoot her to stardom, what do you think about her giving up and leaving Antoinette? At twenty-three Coco became Etienne Balsan’s mistress. Do you think she loved him? Was there anything else she could have done at the time to escape poverty?
- Joining Balsan at his estate near Compiègne, she took time off to think about her life and where she was going. She needed a vacation from trying to be famous and failing. Coco borrowed clothing from him and altered it for herself. She rode horses and thought a lot about comfort, even in polite society. Do you think her ‘Dress to live,’ ideology was what made her brand transcend through the ages?
- What do you think of Antoinette’s shop keeper beau and how after being seen at the opera with Adrienne and her intended, she was shunned by her peers?
- During WWI, Coco used fabrics that no one had ever worn before. Jersey was usually used for men’s underwear, and suddenly she was making women’s clothes out of the soft fabric. During the war, she also used rabbit instead of chinchilla. Gabrielle was a wizard at using what she could afford. Do you think this is a trait she learned early on at the orphanage? Why do you think these cheaper fabrics appealed to the wealthy? What about the expensive feather hat gift to a celebrity? Antoinette was supposed to be better at business, but she was worried. Do you think Coco knew the benefits of spending money to make money?
- Boy Capel was the love of Coco’s life. He helped her to make her brand by fronting the store financially for a long time. In the book, it portrayed part of her popularity as a source of entertainment. Women wanted to see Capel’s lover, so they went to Chanel to see Coco. How did you feel when he could finally marry her, but didn’t?
- Coco didn’t take her business seriously for a long time. She had to exhaust the possibility of stardom and realize that marriage to Boy Capel would never come. What role did Antoinette play in her success? What did you think about the newspaper posts to tell people where they were?
- Antoinette finally gives up on her dashing Argentinian’s return and falls for a young Canadian soldier, leaving Coco behind in her world of glamor and time of need. What did you think about Antoinette finally getting married and leaving Europe, and then the way she left Canada?
- Influences from the orphanage were sewn into Chanel’s design. From the little black dress to Black and white stripes, believe it or not, the black nun’s habits played a part in her fashions. Chanel’s Logo was catchy, but most people don’t know that it came from the orphanage where the sister’s grew up. The overlapping circular windows created the Chanel emblem/logo we know today. The chain belts Coco created are reminiscent of the rosery beads that the nuns wore around their waists. Around 1930, Gabrielle even built a staircase in her home that was an exact replica from the orphanage. She begged Antoinette to forget their past and to never speak of it to others. Coco told everyone that they were raised by old maid aunts in the country. After she’d proven a success, why did her past matter so much?
- Do you think Coco spent her whole life looking for adoration and trying to find love? Did the abandonment issues make her feel unworthy of love?
- Not much is known about the real Antoinette. In the book, was her death a murder-suicide?
Trivia: (answers not in the book)
1.Why did the author, Judithe Little, name the book The Chanel Sisters?
2.How old was Antoinette when she died?
3.True or False: Did Coco Chanel die as Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel?
- Coco’s parents were married, but was she born out of wedlock?
- Was Coco Chanel a Nazi spy?
***The author of this book suggested another great read— The Woman Before Wallis, by Bryn Turnbull…it’s about famous influential people such as the Vanderbilts and Prince of Wales.
1.It was what she called the book as she was writing it. This is often the case while an author writes a story. Little said that they couldn’t come up with a better name, so they stuck with the name she’d been using since the beginning. The title tells the reader that it’s not just another Coco Chanel story.
- Antoinette was only 33
- False, when she was born, her mother was sick, and her father was away. No one was there to correct the misspelling of Chasnel. Coco was too embarrassed to ever correct it, because doing so would reveal the poverty of her birth.
- Yes, she was born in a poor house and it was later that her father, Albert Chanel, married their mother.
- Coco was a friend of Churchill, but she had a Nazi lover. It is said that she was on the German side from the beginning of the war, and she resided at the Ritz, where Nazi headquarters was located.
Questions for this book club discussion were formulated by reading, The Chanel Sisters, listening to an interview with Judithe Little, and resourcing Wikipedia.