The larger question: do they matter, simple facts? America was in love with celebrities, the photographers and flappers with their short bobs and sexual daring. The world was already in love with Lee and all she represented: the new woman, brave and bold, matching men in sexual freedom, and carrying secrets. They were like their own photographs, full of dark and light, heavy with shadows.
(from The Beautiful American, page 43)
Quick summary: Jeanne Mackin’s The Beautiful American is the story of Nora Tours, an American living in southern France after World War II who journeys to London to find her missing teenage daughter. Distraught and unsuccessful in her efforts to locate Dahlia, she bumps into an old friend from her days in the expat community in 1920s Paris. Back in the day, Lee Miller, the famous model and war correspondent, had introduced Nora and her boyfriend, Jamie, a budding photographer, to influential artists, including her lover, Man Ray, and Pablo Picasso. While spending a weekend with Lee and her husband, Nora recounts her childhood in Poughkeepsie, her early days in Paris and the events that sent her fleeing, how she and her daughter survived the war in Vichy France, and the secret about a tragic event in Lee’s childhood that she has been keeping since she was a young girl.
Why I wanted to read it: I must admit I was drawn to the cover right away, and I can’t resist novels set in England or France that touch upon World War II in some way.
What I liked: Mackin’s writing is simply beautiful, and there’s a haunting quality to the prose as Nora recounts her friendship with Lee and the life she made for herself and Dahlia after Paris. I had never heard of Lee Miller before reading this book, and I was fascinated by her life, especially her work as a war correspondent who photographed battles and the concentration camps. Both Lee and Nora were unconventional, but they were also opposites, especially when it came to their views of love and sex. I was intrigued by both characters, finding things to like and dislike in both of them, but that’s what made them interesting. Mackin also brings 1920s Paris and post-war Grasse and London to life, and I easily lost myself in the story.
What I disliked: I wish Mackin had told the story through both Nora’s and Lee’s points of view, mainly because I wanted more about Lee’s experiences during the war. I definitely want to read more about her in the future.
Final thoughts: The Beautiful American is a story about loss and betrayal at a time of much social upheaval. Mackin puts two strong women at the forefront of this novel, both of whom carry secrets and weaknesses. Nora’s evolution over the course of the book was fascinating, yet not quite as fascinating as Mackin’s portrayal of Lee Miller. It’s a novel about relationships that withstand the worst betrayals, the regret that can plague someone who doesn’t fight for what they want, and how motherhood and war put things into perspective.
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Disclosure: I received The Beautiful American from NAL for review.
© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.