The Beautiful American by Jeanne MackinPublication Date: June 3, 2014
Formats: eBook, Paperback, Audio
Genre: Historical Fiction
As recovery from World War II begins, expat American Nora Tours travels from her home in southern France to London in search of her missing sixteen-year-old daughter. There, she unexpectedly meets up with an old acquaintance, famous model-turned-photographer Lee Miller. Neither has emerged from the war unscathed. Nora is racked with the fear that her efforts to survive under the Vichy regime may have cost her daughter's life. Lee suffers from what she witnessed as a war correspondent photographing the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.
Nora and Lee knew each other in the heady days of late 1920's Paris, when Nora was giddy with love for her childhood sweetheart, Lee became the celebrated mistress of the artist Man Ray, and Lee's magnetic beauty drew them all into the glamorous lives of famous artists and their wealthy patrons. But Lee fails to realize that her friendship with Nora is even older, that it goes back to their days as children in Poughkeepsie, New York, when a devastating trauma marked Lee forever. Will Nora's reunion with Lee give them a chance to forgive past betrayals, and break years of silence?
A novel of freedom and frailty, desire and daring, The Beautiful American portrays the extraordinary relationship between two passionate, unconventional woman.
PRAISE"Will transport you to expat Paris." - Suzanne Rindell, author of The Other Typist
"A brilliant, beautifully written literary masterpiece" - Sandra Dallas, author of Fallen Women
"Leaves its essence of love, loss, regret and hope long after the novel concludes." - Erika Robuck, author of Fallen Beauty
"Achingly beautiful and utterly mesmerizing...her vividly drawn characters...come heartbreakingly alive in their obsessions, tragedies and triumphs" - Jennifer Robson, author of Somewhere in France
"From Poughkeepsie to Paris, from the razzmatazz of the twenties to the turmoil of World War Two and the perfume factories of Grasse, Mackin draws you into the world of expatriate artists and photographers and tells a story of love, betrayal, survival and friendship...an engaging and unforgettable novel" - Renee Rosen, author Doll Face
MY REVIEWThe Beautiful American is quite simply, beautifully written. It is an eye-opening book not only into the elegant, mysterious and wild life of famous model, actress, photographer and war correspondent, Lee Miller, but also the lives of Pablo Picasso, Man Ray and many other famous friends Miller kept. She expertly painted with words the visuals of their work--and I looked because I had to see them for myself!
We see Lee through the eyes of Nora Tours, starting from childhood until the time of Lee's death. I enjoyed Mackin's cleverness in creating a character that paralleled Lee's life. Nora and Lee are almost opposites. Lee is outspoken, adventurous, a risk-taker. Nora is more subdued, often sticks to the sidelines and holds back. But we do see her step out of her shell from time to time. She is a vibrant, loving and deep character. Even when Nora should hate Lee, she can't. There is too much that ties them together. Forgiveness is a major theme in this novel. Forgiveness of parents, self, strangers, friends, lovers.
The novel is stunning look into the lives of Americans and Europeans before the war, during and in the wake of disaster. The suffering, the heartache, the joy. All of it. Mackin has brought to life an extensive time period in sweeping artistic strokes. She brings to light the very real and difficult topic of rape. How women's bodies were used as commodities, and that even children were not safe from predators, before, during and after the war.
Have you ever seen a picture of a delicious meal, and you can almost taste it? Mackin does the same with scent. Be prepared for your olfactory sense to be stimulated. My nose is still tingling. I don't think I will view scents the same way again. I think I may, in fact, have taken scents for granted. I remember with each of my children, when they were born, the scent of their hair, their skin and that I could breathe it in for hours. The same ways, I love the scent of puppy breath, freshly baked bread, my sheets, my house, outside when it rains. When I think of scents, there are some that take me back. Good places, bad, happy, sad. I really enjoyed that Nora thought in scent. Every emotion, every place, every event, it all had a scent.
I fell in love with the characters, hugged Nora and Dahlia to my hearts like they were my own. I suffered and endured right along with them. The good friends and loves she had and lost. The personal victories. I hoped, I dreamed, I cried, I smiled, I railed, I triumphed. Mackin has penned such a beautiful tale that will remain with me for a long time, and I will be eagerly searching out her other books.
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHORI was thrilled to have a chance to read The Beautiful American and to ask the author a few questions regarding her novel! Enjoy!
Tell us how you came up with the idea for your novel? I've seen a lot of WWII era novels, but this is very unique in the heroine searching for her missing daughter.
Ever since I began writing fiction, many years ago, in the back of the mind was a plan to some day write a novel about World War II. My father fought in that war, and I know it changed him, and it changed how he felt about his family, how he felt about the world. His war experiences became a large part of our family dynamic. So I knew that when I wrote my novel about the war, it wouldn’t be about battles, but about what happens to the women and children who live through the war and suffer it in their own unique ways. So many families were torn apart; so many children went missing. That became part of Nora’s story
I love that you have such strong and independent women in your book. Who/what inspired you to write Nora's character?
I have a strong preference for strong women, women who refuse to be passive or victimized or secondary. Nora loses the father who loves her, spends years alone with a mother who is too self-absorbed to really love anyone else, and then the boy who is the love of her life turns out to be..Well, I won’t say, and give too much away. But at each turn, at each challenge, Nora gets her emotional footing back, goes on and refuses to surrender. A friend said once that my novels are so “Damn life affirming!” and they are; they are meant to be. What’s the point of giving up? It certainly doesn’t make a good story. When we give up, we stop learning, we stop experiencing life fully, and those two things are the only reasons to be alive.
Have you lived overseas? Just curious, since your heroines Nora and Lee, both Americans, end up living in Europe.
I’ve traveled quite a bit and visited Paris many times. I lived in Rome once for half a year. There’s a large part of me that is most at home in an ancient city, with cobbled streets, medieval churches, old buildings. Here in the states I live in the country, surrounded by green hills and, in winter, beautiful landscapes of snow, and that pleases me, too, but every once in a while I just need to walk on very old streets and let myself by surrounded by history.
What sort of research went into writing this novel? What did you do to get into Lee's mind? Did you visit any of her exhibitions?
My fictional version of the very real Lee Miller began in my imagination many years ago, when my best friend was a photographer. I’m not a very visual person, and it was completely enlightening to me, to see how differently visual people exist in the world, always seeing it in terms of shots and frames, color, shadow, tones, lines. What my friend taught me about photography turned up in Lee’s imagination and in what she says. There are also several good biographies of Lee that include many of her photographs – photographs of her as a model, as well as the photographs she took when she became a photojournalist and artist. I studied the photos, tried to imagine her state of mind when she took them. She could very playful and made lots of visual puns. She could also be completely fearless and require people looking at the photographs to be fearless.
Most authors find they connect very emotionally with their characters. Because of the research subject matter, did you have to take breaks from the book?
I wanted to, but I wouldn’t let myself. When I write a novel, I am living it in my head as I go along, and to take a break means to let myself have relief from whatever my characters are experiencing.. And that, I think, would make it less authentic. So, yes, sometimes I cry a little when I write. Sometimes I get a little depressed or hopeless over the state of the world and the things that happen in it. But sometimes I laugh, too. It was difficult to read and think about the rape of Lee when she was such a tiny little girl, that was perhaps the hardest part of the story for me, but I had to be able to be there with her, to experience it in my imagination, so that her character would evolve from that event. I found myself disassociating, which I think Lee must have done as well. I had to figure out how to move on from that, as she did.
What is next for you?
I just published a new novel A Lady of Good Family, about a Gilded Age woman who decides to become a professional landscape designer…the first in this country. Beatrix Farrand was a real woman (as was Lee – I like to start with true history) who refused to be conventional yet somehow managed to remain well thought of by her peers. Better than well thought of! Now, I’m working on a novel set again in Paris before World War II, about a very intense rivalry between two fashion designers.
Thanks for letting me visit with you! Happy reading!
Jeanne Mackin is also the author of the Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers (Cornell University publications) and co-editor of The Book of Love (W.W. Norton.) She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and a keynote speaker for The Dickens Fellowship. Her work in journalism won awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, in Washington, D.C. She has taught or conducted workshops in Pennsylvania, Hawaii and at Goddard College in Vermont.