Mistress of the Ritz
By Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte Press, 2019
Mistress of the Ritz, the new historical fiction from Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife, continues her exploration of the weird sub-sub-genre of CadLit, novels about women who marry jerks, and this latest novel starts cranking up the irony right in its title: the womanizing rumors surrounding Claude Auzello, director of the famed Hotel Ritz in Paris during the Nazi occupation of the city, constantly torment his wife Blanche:
Every woman she met, now, she couldn’t help but wonder: Is it her? Is this perfectly nice woman who sat down next to her in the Ritz tearoom, chatting about the high cost of gloves these days, asking Blanche what kind of perfume she is wearing, actually Claude’s mistress? Every woman with her own teeth and under the age of fifty was a suspect; Claude had made it impossible for Blanche to trust any female she met.
With energetic, occasionally jerky prose and a propulsive use of the present tense, the novel tells the story of Claude and Blanche navigating not only the minefield their own relationship has become but also the nightmare of suspicion, treachery, and looming violence that has gripped Paris in the wake of the Nazi arrival. Benjamin captures the splendor and heritage of the Ritz with a great deal of assurance and - as usual in her books - no pedantry, no raw chunks of research plopped into the narrative.
The novel’s most consistently winning quality is its refusal to push either Claude or Blanche forward as victim or victimizer. Blanche’s gradual discovery of her own heroism is very carefully realized, and Claude’s vain willfulness is shaded with some appealing dimensions of self-doubt and self-regard. His life story tends to elicit both Benjamin’s wry humor (he survives the Great War because he leaves his post to urinate right before the post is destroyed by artillery) and, alas, her occasional weakness for overwriting:
Despite his embarrassment over the circumstances of his survival, he had served admirably. Claude was not one to indulge in false modesty; he knew that he was born to lead, not to follow. He had been a captain in charge of a battalion of men and he saw some of those men die around him; he held them while they shuddered out of this life; he had put his hands - he surveyed them now, marveling at the whiteness, the manicure he’d gotten yesterday. He had put those same unblemished hands in blood and shit and intestines. He had felt the sharp shards of bones protruding from flesh.
Mistress of the Ritz has a pleasing number of dramatic twists and the expected array of name-dropped celebrity walk-ons, but its main strength is its central, intriguingly complex marriage. It has occasional slangy or sloppy prose, but it carries the reader along even so, and it brings alive the haphazard valor of the Resistance. It’s even ultimately merciful to poor Claude; there’s hope for CadLit yet.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.