In her novel Mistress of the Ritz, that she says is “inspired by” rather than “based on” a true story, Melanie Benjamin weaves an account of Claude and Blanche Auzello, who keep the Hotel Ritz in Paris functioning luxuriously through World War II. Known before the war for its rich and famous guests, such as Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the opulence continues once Paris is taken by the German soldiers.
Lily, Blanche’s friend and accomplice, narrates the first and last chapter with the remaining dated chapter narrations switching between Claude and Blanche. When the Ritz is overtaken by the Nazi soldiers, both of the Auzellos, on the surface, seem to adapt to the new residents with Claude serving them with style and Blanche becoming an exuberant drinking buddy at the bar. But this is a world where no one is quite sure who is really acquiescing to the invasion and who is secretly working with the Resistance.
The couple’s secrets from each other and from the conquering army permeate the story and leave the reader in constant suspense. The truth, when it inevitably comes out, forebodes danger for both them and others who have joined them separately in intrigue. A quote from a midpoint in the book sets a theme for the couple’s relationship. “By letting Claude believe what he wants to believe – what he’s so eager to believe about her – she can hide her activities from him.” There remains an even bigger secret that only they know and share that threatens the greatest peril.
This fascinating account of a marriage woven into the war itself has an almost equally fascinating author’s note at the end, giving the research and truth that started Melanie Benjamin on her writing journey for the novel. She takes the intrigue that she learned from that research and adds conjured details for a book that made me only regret that I didn’t have time to read it in one sitting.