Hardcover (also available as a paperback, an e-book, an audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-1-5258-0638-4, 400 pgs., $28.99
December 29, 2020
Houston writer Judithe Little’s engaging and entertaining fictional autobiography focuses on the young lives of famed fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, her sisters Antoinette and Julia-Berthe, and their sophisticated, confident young aunt, Adrienne Chanel.
Little’s well-crafted narrative introduces the sisters as teenagers, living in a French convent under the strict control of nuns. When their mother died several years earlier, their grandparents could not afford to take them in. Their traveling-salesman father then had them declared “children of the poorhouse” and abandoned them. Now, the Chanel sisters are chafing at their long confinement and eager to learn anything they can about the outside world they will join once they each turn eighteen. They fantasize about meeting handsome, heroic men. And, after growing up wearing drab, ill-fitting convent uniforms, they dream of having other clothes, especially items like those worn by the élégantes, the women of high society.
Suddenly, they are visited by a relative they barely remember: Adrienne, their father’s youngest sister. She convinces the convent’s Mother Superior to let her escort her three nieces out of the convent on occasional short excursions into town. Aunt Adrienne happily shows the Chanel sisters both some real-life élégantes and introduces them to French magazines full of fashion illustrations. The sisters cut out pages, take them back to the convent, and hide them from the nuns. This is when Gabrielle launches her first fashion rebellion; she starts modifying and tailoring her bulky convent uniform to make it fit better. When Antoinette follows her example, it is a key moment. It will lead, in just a few years, to a fashion empire with an iconic name.
The Chanel Sisters is written from the imagined perspective of Antoinette Chanel. Few details are known about her real life, but the author contends Antoinette was “responsible for conducting a large portion of Coco’s business,” as the fashionista rose from obscurity. Little keeps her novel moving briskly with well-focused, compact sentences and just enough French to heighten the sense of place and strict social order at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Judithe Little’s new work not only chronicles the rapid rise of Coco Chanel, it also delves into each of the adult sisters’ troubled relationships with men, plus their collisions with some of the strict social mores of the early twentieth century. Antoinette herself pushes back against how easily she can be branded “a woman of loose morals” just by her clothing choices and with whom she is seen without a chaperone.
The Chanel Sisters is an intriguing, informative, character-centered historical novel that can appeal both to readers with strong senses of fashion and casual readers who pay scant attention to any fashion trends at all.
Judithe Little is the award-winning author of Wickwythe Hall. She earned a BA in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. She grew up in Virginia and now lives with her husband, three teenagers, and three dogs in Houston, Texas.