Recap: The year is 1940. The place is Paris, France at the Ritz Hotel, one of the most beautiful, extravagant and famous hotels in the world. Claude and Blanche are at odds with each other and the world. Fear envelops both of them as the war takes its firm grip on more and more of Europe. For so long, they lived a life of luxury living at the Ritz with Claude as the hotel manager and Blanche, his wife, gossiping among the wildly famous authors and artists who stayed there. Their marriage was never as strong as the confidence they portrayed separately.
The Nazis are taking over the hotel. Claude no longer runs the place. He must bend to the ways of the Germans and bow before their boldness. Blanche is in fear everyday, wondering what comes next while simultaneously loathing her adulterous husband. So she spends time with her friends, people like Lily, who Claude has come to vehemently dislike over the years.
Out of fear and anger and a need to do something – anything – to fight for her future, Blanche takes her own steps toward battling back against the Nazis, not knowing that her husband is doing the something similar. The lies increase in number but they also stem from good intention and a desire to better their lives.
Analysis: After reading another Melanie Benjamin book so recently, I was thrilled to start Mistress of the Ritz. I had already become familiar with Benjamin’s style of rotating narrators, strong female characters, historical fiction and varying timelines. But when I started Mistress, I was surprised to find this one wasn’t so female-driven. One of the narrators was a man. Would I like this partially-male centric novel as much? Especially when Blanche and Claude were so at odds with each other, so unlikeable initially and so spiteful? It took a few chapters, but yes.
Once Benjamin outlines some of the backstory between Blanche and Claude – their whirlwind meet-cute and wedding, their crazy honeymoon shenanigans and the ongoing issues between them – we start to understand why they are the way they are. And when the story takes a turn, offering solace to both of them via fending off Nazis, the true beauty of their personalities and relationship come to life.
Once again, Melanie Benjamin finds an already incredible TRUE story (Blanche and Claude Auzello were, in fact, real people who used the Ritz to assist the resistance against the Nazis) and finds a way of making it modern and relatable through her depth of characters and their relationships with each other. This is a story that’s 80 years old and not well known, and with the sentiment of a strong women finding her voice in the midst of turmoil, it Mistress reads as 2019 as anything.
MVP: Blanche. Not the most likeable initially, she uses her innate skills, talent and personality to find power in the most troubling times. Her growth and character development are a thing of beauty.