Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“This is what an occupation does—it wears you down until you accept evil. Until you can no longer fully define it, even. Let alone recognize it.”
When American actress Blanche Ross marries French hotelier Claude Auzello, she gives up a free-wheeling lifestyle for a more staid existence as the wife of the manager of the beautiful and famous Hotel Ritz, on the Place Vendome. Marrying in haste, they soon find themselves at loggerheads over their differing expectations. Over decades, they broker a fractious peace, but all of that is swept aside when the Nazis occupy Paris, and make the Ritz their headquarters. Now the Auzellos are faced with a deeper question; do they acquiesce or resist?
Mistress of the Ritz is told in alternating chapters, beginning with the Auzellos whirlwind courtship in 1923, and then jumping ahead to the Occupation in 1940. However, Melanie Benjamin often blurs these distinctions, switching to the 1940s, only to have Blanche spend pages reminiscing about the events that were recounted in the earlier chapter. The novel is based on true events, but in the Author’s Note, Benjamin concedes that the historical record of the Auzellos is so slight that most of the book comes from giving her imagination free rein. This takes fullest expression in the character of Lily Kharmanyoff, an unlikely friend who pushes Blanche to question her comfortable situation.
The relationship between Claude and Blanche is the lens for the rest of the story. There is always a third in their marriage, and sometimes a fourth. They both love the Hotel Ritz; it is the child they never had. Yet Claude’s emphasis on the duties of his job, and his conformation to the establishment’s conservative and old-fashioned rules inevitably causes tension with his independent-minded wife. While some American women found more freedom in pre-war Paris, Blanche is stifled by Claude’s unfamiliar French Catholic world-view. When Claude takes up visiting a mistress on Thursday nights, and forthrightly explains this to Blanche in French fashion, the fissures in their marriage only widen. It is on this cracked foundation that they become the managers of the Nazi’s Paris headquarters, walking a fine line between collaboration and resistance. Unable to quite trust one another, they must make their own decisions about how to protect the staff, the hotel, and their secrets while avoiding retribution from their occupiers.
Benjamin sets up two facts as points of suspense which are of questionable effectiveness, in that the reader is not likely to be surprised or deceived. Part way through the book, Claude begins receiving mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night. He tells Blanche he has taken another mistress, but it is immediately clear that this not the case, though Benjamin obfuscates for a hundred pages. The reader is unlikely to be surprised by the revelation that he is working with the Resistance, so this point is only useful in heightening the tension between Claude and Blanche. Such devices, carried out too long, begin to make to protagonist look unobservant. At the same time, Benjamin veils Blanche’s origins with questionable effectiveness, trying to play her Jewish heritage off as a big reveal towards the end of the book. Leaving aside the fact that no one’s identity is a plot twist, Benjamin also sacrifices the opportunity to explore the emotional implications Blanche must have felt, living as a secret Jew under the nose of the Nazi command in Paris. This aspect of her psyche was much more interesting to me than her tribulations as the wife of a condescending philanderer, but the latter receives much greater emphasis.
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