Novel Thoughts: The Gospel According to Coco ChanelPosted: September 17, 2011
Biography is unwieldy. It requires of the writer a certain amount both of subjectivity and objectivity, and that balance can be difficult to strike. For a writer to successfully accomplish the feat that is relating someone else’s life story, he or she must possess a certain level of ardour and incredulity. In The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, Karen Karbo has masterfully managed to relate the story of one of the most sought-after and coveted fashion icons of all time while avoiding the pitfalls of incrimination and idolization.
As per the title, Karbo’s book relates not only the facts of Chanel’s life, her loves, her losses, her idiosyncrasies, but also her philosophies, her business practices, and her overall sense of self-entitlement. Karbo makes no attempt to portray Chanel as more endearing on the page than she was in real life. Chanel was Chanel, and we as readers are invited to take her or leave her. You’ll probably want to take her.
Karbo’s tone is conversational but removed. Her voice invites readers to be as frustrated with the subject as we want to be, while latently reminding us of Chanel’s importance. We may not agree with her life choices. We may be exasperated with the incongruous vignettes that are her life story. But in the end, fascination trumps indignation.
Every story, life or otherwise, is multifaceted, and Chanel’s is no different. Arguably she never told the same story of herself twice. At least not for long. Karbo confronts these inaccuracies head-on. She is careful to ensure that her readers understand the tenuous nature of the story of Chanel, as told both by her and other people. By using this voice and making herself seem just as suspicious of the story’s accuracy as her readers are, Karbo builds credibility for herself in the mind of the reader.
The Gospel According to Coco Chanel is biography done well. It is the story of Chanel told creatively in a way that is entertaining and informative. Karbo relates the facts inasmuch as we can know them, but she does so with wit and humor, simultaneously exposing Chanel’s humanity and genius.