As a reader, biography offers not simply an opportunity to read about the life of another, but also an invitation to ponder the choices...

As a reader, biography offers not simply an opportunity to read about the life of another, but also an invitation to ponder the choices that are available in life, the choices that comprise a life. Towards the end of Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life(Penguin, 2011) biographer Lisa Chaney allows her subject to speak for herself. Chanel writes: ‘Today, alone in the sunshine and snow… I shall continue, without husband, without children, without grandchildren, without these delightful illusions… I am not a heroine. But I have chosen the person I wanted to be.’ Chanel’s is a life that, all these years later, still reads as radical, which puts into perspective how terribly shocking it must have appeared in the early 20th century.

Chaney has chosen an unusually challenging subject. Mired in myths, some of them of her own devising, the image of Chanel that has been passed down to us is clouded at best and, as Chaney acknowledges, quoting L.P. Hartley’s statement in The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’

The story of Chanel’s life emerges in more muted tones than one might expect, with gray areas aplenty, from which it is unreasonable to demand clarity or place judgment.

And yet Coco Chanel remains an uncompromising account. Chaney doesn’t ignore Chanel’s capacity for storytelling but, rather, explores the meanings of her stories, their unrealities, and the significance of the details that Chanel chose to omit. She doesn’t side-step the controversies surrounding Chanel’s life during the occupation of Paris, but instead grapples head-on with the moral ambiguities and compromises that occurred during the Occupation and in Vichy France.

What emerges is an unflinching portrait of a complex, intelligent, unapologetic, incredibly hard working woman.

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