- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

By Chris Greenhalgh
Riverhead, $15, 336 pages

When two stars of artistic genius such as Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky collide in early-20th century France, there’s bound to be drama and romance, although their affair was a sordid and adulterous one.

It’s the forbidden love between the feisty fashion designer and the soulful composer that makes this union so irresistible for a historical novel, and author Chris Greenhalgh has delivered it in “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinksy,” published for the first time in the United States this week. It is the basis for the film version due out in January.

In the novel, Chanel is first exposed to Stravinsky in the spring of 1913 when she is in the audience for a performance of his “The Rite of Spring” at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, causing the City of Light to erupt in riots due to the ballet’s power, unconventional style and provocative themes.

They do not meet on that night, but are at similar points in their early thirties and about to set the world alight in what will become legendary careers.

She has just achieved her first whiff of fame after designing hats for French aristocrats, lifting her from a childhood mired in abandonment and poverty.

As for Stravinsky, he has already composed “Petrushka” and “Firebird,” and won the praise and friendship of the likes of Debussy and Ravel, but by 1917 will be exiled from his home country of Russia thanks to the Revolution.

The two are not properly introduced until 1920 by their mutual friend Sergei Diaghilev, the well-known arts critic and patron.

“I see your name everywhere,” Stravinsky tells his new acquaintance.

“And I never stop hearing yours,” she purrs back.

At the time of their fated meeting, Chanel is a woman swimming in money and luxury, an independent spirit far ahead of her time.

While Stravinsky is equally talented, he is financially strapped with children and Catherine, his sick and feeble wife, clinging to him.

“Coco realizes his dandyism is an act. It masks a deep sense of insecurity and a profound sense of loss. Loss of state and selfhood. The man is clinging on, she thinks.”

Stravinsky is instantly smitten. “The clay was warm the day God made her,” he reports to Diaghilev.

Seeing something of herself in the young composer and sensing their animal attraction, Chanel, ever the cunning huntress, invites Stravinsky and his family to stay, rent free, in her lair, a new villa she has purchased as a holiday place in Garches, called Bel Respiro.

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