Two old-fashioned romances grace these pages (Cannes and Grasse, France 1955-1956, also London, NYC; epilogue 1982): Do fairy-tales come true?
Would you love to be transported to the days when an iconic actress of the 20th century came to the French Riviera and met her prince? She a “princess from the moment she was born.”
If stepping back into the life of Grace Kelly – once considered “the most beautiful and famous woman in the world,” the “epitome of femininity” – doesn’t send you running for a copy of Meet Me in Monaco, would an equally charming fictional woman who became friends with the actress, Sophie Duval, tempt you more? She a perfumer with an exquisite nose who’ll bring you to another dreamy setting, the flower fields of Provence, perfume capital of the world.
One more hook: you will not find a single word of profanity, befitting these two graceful women. The harshest prose you’ll find is “hell’s bells” and “oopsy-daisy”!
Grace Kelly stirred legions of fans all over the world, then gave up an illustrious American movie career at twenty-six to be crowned Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco when she married Prince Ranier III. Imagine going from Philadelphia to Hollywood to become a Monégasque (citizen) reigning over Monaco, a tiny “principality. Like Vatican City.” The “wedding of the century” took place at a sixteenth-century palace overlooking the Côte d’Azur, watched on TV by 30 million and captured by 2,000 journalists and press photographers! Yes,“it seems everyone loves a fairy-tale romance.”
Even if you know how Grace Kelly’s fairy-tale ended, you’ll still be moved by its heartfelt depiction by two talented historical fiction writers, Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb, who’ve collaborated on another historical romance novel set in France, Last Christmas in Paris; and taken with their lively creation: a Grace Kelly “obsessive,” Angeline West. A brash Philadelphia journalist who devotedly reports on the whereabouts and fashions of her idol. Like her 10.47 diamond engagement ring and the most popular wedding dress in the world on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
If you’re nostalgic for the actress’ “timeless elegance” – be it the “Grace Kelly look” or her graciousness – you’ll devour this book.
Knowing Grace Kelly’s story doesn’t tell us how another old-fashioned romance turns out. That one is between her ten-years-older friend Sophie and James Henderson, a “striking” London-based photographer for the British press assigned to get glamorous shots of the world-famous movie star, or he’ll lose his job. Freeing him wouldn’t be so bad at all if it weren’t for his precious ten-year-old daughter, Emily, back home, whom he adores. No doubt, his ex-wife would use a lack of financial support against him, tightening her stranglehold, another excuse preventing him from seeing her. A war buddy keeps him afloat.
Fascinating, the parallels between a legendary star and an unknown fictional one. Both are shy but learned how to be “confident socialite[s]” when they had to. Obviously, Grace Kelly had far more practice perfecting that, but Sophie is “an intriguing woman,” says James, “who enchanted me more than the Hollywood stars.” The two are natural beauties, grateful for their unlikely friendship.
Meet Me in Monaco opens with this simple yet stunning photograph of Grace Kelly:
Her love story begins when she arrives in Cannes for the 8th annual film festival. Despite the paparazzi chasing her, she maintained her warmth.
The novel is structured two ways. One alternates between French Sophie and British James, punctuated by that winsome American reporter. Ever wonder how two authors collaborate on one novel? I suspect Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb took on one of the characters, whose narrations switch back and forth sharing their challenges and feelings for each other. Up against Grace Kelly’s tantalizing fairy-tale, and a budding, enduring friendship between two women of grace, this is wholesome escapist fiction with life throwing its share of curve balls and sorrows.
Organized in three parts, named in the language of perfume – Head Notes, Heart Notes, Base Notes – for as much as this is Grace Kelly’s story, it’s Sophie the perfumer’s on a more personal, knowable level. Stardom and royalty are by nature a bit elusive.
Head Notes introduce characters and establish impressions as these are the “notes that greet the nose immediately and evaporate quickly.” When the actress meets the prince there must have been an instant attraction as they wrote to each other for only a few months and then got engaged, surprising the world. Love almost at first sight also happens when James ducks into Sophie’s perfume boutique in Cannes thinking he spotted Grace Kelly doing the same to politely avoid a persistent photographer. He’s immediately drawn to Sophie; touches a nerve in her too. Yet, contrary to the perfume terminology, both sets of romantic impressions do not fade. Rather, they deepen.
Fairy-tales are not without their conflicts. For Sophie, it’s an irritating, condescending, sexist, wealthy boyfriend who thinks he owns her. To some extent he does, having bailed out her beloved father’s perfume legacy, which she regrets, but the business she inherited is constantly on the financial brink.
Sophie, not one to give up easily, is inspired by her father’s training in the “science and magic, art and beauty” of creating scents that hold memories, “remind you of something, or someone.” She’s also passionate and incredibly hard-working in her own right, inventing new “luxury fragrances” with sensuous French names and designing elegant bottles, to rescue her perfume house. Her workshop is in Grasse, where the factory and flowers are located, along with her trouble-maker, alcoholic mother living in their quintessential Provence “stone farmhouse.”
James is also passionate about his craft and art, but not hounding movie stars; he prefers photographing natural landscapes, which he discovers like a treasure trove in romantic France. Yet he keeps having to cut his time short to return to London because of emergencies. Leaving Sophie is maddening. So he and Sophie, like the actress and prince, also correspond through letters, though more sporadically over a much longer duration.
Part Two, Heart Notes –“scents that emerge in the middle of the dispersion process” – are where the two couples reveal their hearts. Except, the royal couple cements their love, while Sophie and James’ relationship is thwarted again and again.
The third part, the Base Notes, “the notes that linger the longest,” let you know whether the novel has a fairy-tale ending. Actually, two. Be prepared to cry and smile.
Along the way, you’ll be met by prose scented with roses, lavender, violet, verbena, vanilla, tuberose; a gentleman’s flirtatious lines straight out of old romantic movies; and Angeline’s colorful columns that increase in frequency, which we welcome like a news junkie.
If, like me, you’re sorry when Meet Me in Monaco ends, you can watch Grace Kelly and Cary Grant star in To Catch a Thief, filmed in the same gorgeous locale, same time period.
The film’s director, Alfred Hitchcock, Hitch to his friends, was apparently dazzled by Grace Kelly too, making two more films featuring her: Rear Window and Dial M for Murder.
Always a princess, what Grace Kelly did out of appreciation for and friendship with Sophie, which feels authentic to her goodness, may make her one of your favorite actresses too.