In the interest of full disclosure, I’m packing in a few quick books up front to buy me buffer time to tackle that copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that’s been sitting in my TBR pile for a couple of years now.
Book #2: The Gospel According to Coco Chanel by Karen Karbo.
I finished this book a few days ago and have been trying to figure out ever since if I actually liked it or not.
I picked this book up as a Kindle daily deal for cheap as free because I have a secret fascination with things that have to do with high fashion (this may or may not be traceable back to the time I read The Devil Wears Prada. We won’t get into that here), as well as a weakness for impulse-buy-priced ebooks, and it looked like an interesting read.
And it was, as far as the actual biographical bits about Coco Chanel went. The author seems to have done her basic research and I liked the way Chanel’s life was presented according to category (“On Style,” “On Self-Invention,” “On Cultivating Arch-Rivals,” etc.) rather than strictly chronologically (although it was chronological enough to avoid confusion).
Something about this book bugged me from the get-go, even though it took me a while to figure out exactly what it was. Even while I was enjoying the presentation of Chanel’s life and quotes and loves and adventures, I wasn’t enjoying the book itself. I didn’t hate it or dislike it enough to quit reading, but it just rubbed me wrong.
It finally clicked that I didn’t really like the author. I wasn’t interested in the autobiographical sections that she used to frame the chapters on Chanel. I didn’t like the editorializing she made on Chanel’s life and attitudes. I guess it boils down to one basic thing: I didn’t like her tone of writing.
Let me clarify: I think she’s a good writer. Her tone positively sparkles in some places. She definitely has wit and skills and such.
The book didn’t really gel as a whole. It felt a lot like a compilation of newspaper columns in some ways: each chapter is complete in itself and follows some little gimmick or motif, but doesn’t necessarily match the preceding or following chapters.
In some cases it felt like the author had already drawn her own conclusions about Chanel’s life or actions based simply on surface facts and was writing what fit those notions, rather than actually exploring what might have been really going on in the background, what her motivations were, or the like. (At one point she actually says, “I was going to discuss [incident], but I simply can’t bring myself to do it.”) I guess I’m more accustomed to having biographers dig a little deeper than mere surface facts, even when those surface facts are pretty damning.
But what really bothered me the most was the author’s tone relative to the fact that she was writing this book from a feminist point of view (she all but stated it outright). I have no problem with that in general; what bothered me was that the tone seemed to be less about the feminism that’s for gender equality and respect and more about the stereotypical feminism that, to put it bluntly, sounds more like man-hater than anything else, and which gives more reasonable branches of feminism a bad name. To paraphrase a quote from Pride and Prejudice, “Take care, Karen; that speech savors strongly of disappointment.” I kept feeling like this book had been written in the aftermath of a bad breakup and the author kept forgetting that the book is about Chanel and not her own relationship problems. At several points I wanted to tell the author to quit whining and get back to Chanel.
Which is probably very unfair for me to say. It’s quite probable that the author meant nothing of the sort. But it was kind of hard to get away from that feeling, and that is what has ultimately made me decide that this book only gets 1.5 stars. I liked parts of it, but overall I didn’t really care for it, although someone else might.
(Maybe I’ll just go watch The September Issue again to make myself feel better.)