The Addition of Grace Kelly Doesn’t Spice Up Bland Historical Romance
Grace Kelly made fewer than a dozen films and her Hollywood career spanned only five years. However, nearly four decades after her tragic death, Kelly remains a figure of fascination for classic film fans and royal-watchers alike. Her 1956 marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco serves as the inspiration and historical backdrop for Meet Me in Monaco, the second novel from writing team Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb.
When Kelly stumbles into the Cannes boutique of perfumer Sophie Duval, followed by British press photographer James Henderson, the encounter sparks new friendships, romance, and hope for the struggling parfumerie. The narrative switches between Sophie and James, telling the story from each character’s POV, with occasional interjections of news reports about Kelly and the impending royal wedding.
My comfort-reading tastes usually run toward cozy mysteries, which are usually quite heavy on plot, and either feature a charismatic main character or take place in a unique setting, ideally a combination of all three. So I’ll admit that a straightforward historical romance is not the type of book that I’d normally pick up. I’m much more likely to wait for the direct-to-streaming film version so I can gawk at the clothes and scenery even if the central romance feels formulaic (hello, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society). However, several aspects of this book intrigued me–the classic Hollywood connection, the glamorous French Riviera and Provence settings, even Sophie’s profession as a perfume maker.
Unfortunately, the authors explored nothing about the locale or culture in enough depth to make a strong impression. Moreover, I found the main characters bland. Sophie carries a notebook and sometimes eats lunch. James is a veteran and owns a hat. They have no interests beyond their professions and the basic necessities of life. The supporting characters are mostly clichés of the genre, such as the charming millionaire boyfriend whom our heroine is destined to dump by in favor of a humble single father. That might sound too specific to be a cliché, but this same love triangle also appeared in the Guernsey Potato Peel movie. What draws either bachelor to Sophie, besides physical attraction, remains unclear. I have to assume that she smells good, but her conversation never strays far from the subject of perfume.
A Snow-Capped Mountain That Contains a Volcano
The addition of Grace Kelly doesn’t make up for the lack of personality in the main characters because Kelly herself is one of the most bland figures to nevertheless become a Hollywood icon. Compared to the gamine quirkiness of Audrey Hepburn or the over-the-top sexiness of platinum-blonde Marilyn Monroe, the prim, proper, tastefully honey-blonde Kelly lacked idiosyncracy. Alfred Hitchcock compared Kelly to a snow-capped mountain that contains a volcano, or to put it another way, a lady in the streets and a freak in the sheets. While that description may be more about his fantasy than her reality, Hitchcock successfully played up this dichotomy in the three films he made with her. In those films Kelly’s appeal shines through. However, in Meet Me in Monaco, Kelly remains a beige cipher with no hint of sparks beneath her cool exterior.
The character Angeline West, a fashion journalist, sums up this vanilla quality of Kelly’s public image in the book. She says, “It’s really nothing new. The classic American college girl look…I guess we’ve just never had anyone to showcase the look so well until now.”
Incidentally, I would gladly read a book about the adventures of Angeline West. She’s a lady reporter with moxie and a passion for fashion! She’s taking on Monaco with a notepad in one hand and a martini in the other! Though Meet Me In Monaco peppers several of West’s articles in between chapters, her appearance as a character about halfway through the story was a welcome injection of spice. However, her appearances in the second half of the novel are unfortunately few and far between.
If you’re craving a bit of romance and French Riviera atmosphere, you would do better to seek out To Catch a Thief, Kelly’s third film directed by Hitchcock. Cary Grant stars as a retired thief, formerly known as The Cat, who becomes the prime suspect in a rash of jewel thefts among the Riviera jet set. An American heiress, played by Kelly, also pursues Grant, and the two eventually team up to, well, catch the thief. Kelly is flirty and elegant, even while munching on chicken during a roadside picnic, and she and Grant have a fun rapport. It is one of Hitchcock’s fluffier capers, filled with gorgeous people, gorgeous clothes, and gorgeous Cote d’Azur scenery filmed in gorgeous VistaVision.
As for Meet Me in Monaco, it’s an easy read and the historical aspects are well-researched, though there’s not much here that a fan of Kelly’s wouldn’t already know. Taken separately, the lack of development in the characters and setting would not necessarily discount the whole book. But taken together, along with a predictable plot, it all adds up to a bland pleasantness that leaves little impression once you’ve reached the end.
(William Morrow, July 23, 2019)