This book did not begin on the beautiful Place Vendôme. It did not even begin in Paris. This book first took shape, instead, one winter afternoon in the former eastern zone of Berlin, in a friend's apartment overlooking the Alexanderplatz.
The Hotel Ritz, in the centre of Paris, has seen a constant flow of celebrities: royalty, artists, journalists, actors... After the Nazi invasion, though, it became the only luxury hotel allowed to stay open. Through the eyes of some of the men and women who passed through its doors (eyes which include Coco Channel, Hermann Goring and Ernest Hemingway), The Hotel on Place Vendome traces the history of the legendary place from its opening at the end of the 19th century through to its present day incarnation as part of the Al-Fayed empire. Concentrating mainly on the wartime period, we see how the hotel became a hotbed of affairs and espionage, where collaborators, Nazis and resistance fighters rubbed shoulders. As the war years advance, it soon becomes clear that not everyone will survive...
I love history books that take a slightly twisted look at historical events, whether it be through a crime or a location that has not often been dealt with. When I saw the cover and blurb for The Hotel on Place Vendome, it immediately spoke to me: a World War II history that takes a swing at the well-known events from the very small prism of a hotel and its inhabitants, whether they be customers or staff. Mazzeo has done a great job of combining all of these elements into a well-written, intriguing narrative fiction.
Rarely diverting from the hotel that is at the centre of the book, The Hotel on Place Vendome brings together a huge cast of characters, some of them well known, some of them lost to history. Though cultural bias means that we automatically codify the characters into good (the Allies, the French resistance) and bad (the Nazis, collaborators), we also see very clearly that things are not so simple. Using each chapter to focus on a single person or handful of persons, Mazzeo manages to pull together all of the different strands into a single narrative by the end that casts an unflinching eye on the chaos and tragedy of the Second World War.
The Hotel on Place Vendome did exactly what I was expecting - providing a slightly slanted look at WW2 and more particularly the invasion and occupation of Paris. Written with all the verve that is required of narrative history, Mazzeo juggles a lot of different characters, providing just enough background information to situate them in the hotel before, during or just after the occupation before showing us how each and every one of them made sacrifices and/or bent their principles to survive the dark hours after Paris fell. Some of them come across better than others, but Mazzeo never judges the actions or beliefs of the people whose lives danced around the Hotel Ritz.
Mazzeo also does a great job of showing the truth behind the veil that the French as a people often place over the events of the occupation. Living in France, I can definitely see where this comes from - when talking, even today, to French people, you get the definite impression that what happened in France is taboo as a topic for conversation. Or that every single person living at the time was part of the resistance, although historical documents prove that only a small percentage actually ever took that stand. When detailing the horrific things that were done notably to women as soon as the Nazis were thrown out of the country, Mazzeo does not hold back from pointing out the hypocritical reactions of a large swath of the population, who days earlier had been working alongside the Nazis and now were attacking the women who - for some - had been forced into "horizontal collaboration".
Although most of the book is taken up with the events of the occupation and the fall of Paris to the Allies (including some great stuff about Hemingway and his fellow journalists engaged in a competition to be the first to get back to the Hotel Ritz), Mazzeo also brings the story forward through the difficult 60s and 70s through to the purchase of the hotel by Al-Fayed and its small role in the death of Princess Diana.
Easy to read, with an interesting narrative structure that focuses each chapter on a different character while advancing the overall story, The Hotel on Place Vendome brings an interesting side-view to the well-known events of the Occupation of Paris by the Nazis. Bringing to life an eclectic cast of characters, Mazzeo keeps up the suspense through to the end. While quite a short book, it still packs in a lot of information, without ever making the reader feel overwhelmed. A fantastic narrative history that is well worth picking up. I gave The Hotel on Place Vendome 4 drunk Hemingways out of 5.
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