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The Beautiful American by Jeanne Mackin

The Beautiful American

by Jeanne Mackin

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I received this as a Goodreads giveaway winner and I'm very grateful that I won. This is a beautifully written book about Nora Tours and her journey from a young girl in Poughkeepsie, NY to Paris and then to Grasse, France. The book starts with Nora searching for her 16-year-old daughter Dahlia who has disappeared from Grasse right after WWII ending. Nora thinks Dahlia will retrace her own footsteps of her life in Paris and London. She soon meets her friend Lee Miller, who she has known since they were a little girl and goes to Lee's farm outside of London. Then the flashback starts about Nora's life and how she got to this point.

I found this book so well written I felt like I was going back into time and what it was like to be an American in Paris in the 1920s-30s. She goes to Paris with her high school boyfriend Jaime and soon bumps into Lee. That starts a relationship where Nora meets people like Picasso. Lee is a brash woman who really doesn't seem like she cares about anyone's feelings and does what makes her happy or at least helps her forget what happened to her when she was a child. The book takes us through a small sampling of what it was like to be in a small French Village during WWII.

I did not know that Lee Miller was a real person until I read other reviews and so I did a little research. This book fascinates me even more that a lot of the characters in the book are real people. Paris during WWII is so fascinating to me and I enjoy different angles than just what happened to the soldiers and the Jews. I like reading all different views so I can get more of a rounded feel to that dark time in history. If you like historical fiction and enjoy this era, then I highly recommend this book. I'm so glad I got a chance to read it and I will be sharing it with my family and friends. ( )
  MHanover10 | Jul 10, 2016 |
I truly enjoyed this book. I began reading another fiction book about Lee Miller whose tone was not what I was looking for at the time. This book was just plain good. Second book by this author I have read.
Lee Miller larger than life. Her existence will live on not only in her photographs but in our imaginations as one who was defiant of the rules and used her wit her beauty her affluent background her tragedies to mold a life that will live on for many generations. ( )
  Alphawoman | Jan 27, 2016 |
I love historical fiction, but fiction that is about real people makes it even more fascinating. I had never heard of Lee Miller, but found myself on Google, researching her photography. In THE BEAUTIFUL AMERICAN we are introduced to Man Ray, Lee Miller, and even Pablo Picasso, real people who were part of the world of art history. Fictional Nora Tours tells the story of herself and these famous artists whose lives were entangled beginning in the 1920's. The story takes you from New York, to Paris, through WWII, and back to New York. You will be captivated, shocked, and definitely emotional as you travel through the lives of these interesting characters.

Nora Tours is an only child. Her father is a gardener for the Miller family and Nora is forced to play with their privileged daughter. The two become friends, balancing each other out. Lee is a tomboy who takes risks, and Nora is quiet and reserved. Until one day, when Nora comes to play with Lee and Lee is different. The two aren't allowed to play together again. They meet up again as adults in Paris. Lee is now a famous model, living with Man Ray, a famous photographer. Nora and her beau, Jamie, a wannabe photographer end up spending their days and nights with Lee and Man partying, frequently rubbing shoulders with some of the famous artists of the 20th Century. Nora and Lee never acknowledge their childhood relationship during all their years together. After a betrayal, Nora goes to Grasse, France and becomes a much sought after perfume sales woman. Sixteen years later, after WWII, during a devastating time in Nora's life, she again runs into Lee Miller. Lee is damaged after photographing the horrors of the war, but finds she can identify with Nora's pain. Lee offers to help Nora and ultimately finds as way for the two to come back together, heal their hearts and move forward.


"Jeanne Mackin blends a tale as intoxicating as the finest fragrance.
Spanning wars both personal and global, A BEAUTIFUL AMERICAN
leaves its essence of love, loss, regret, and hope long after the novel concludes."
Erika Robuck, National Bestselling Author of FALLEN BEAUTY

While reading this book, I kept thinking of Erika Robuck's book FALLEN BEAUTY, and how she so expertly weaves a story into the lives of real people. Mackin's writing was breathtaking and full of metaphors that told deep truths of the characters and their lives. Mackin places you in Paris, in Grasse, and in the terrors of the war by describing the feelings, the scenery, and the scents of the time.

"That's the sad truth of betrayal.
It makes a poor secret except to the betrayed."

"She had the kind of full, voluptuous figure
that would turn to fat if she wasn't careful."

"But sometimes i thought I saw it in her eyes, in the shadows around them.
She just refused to allow the memories into the daylight."

I learned much about perfume from this novel. Nora taught me how to choose the proper scent, how to test it, and how to apply it. The history of the perfume industry and its role in WWII was also fascinating to me.

"Her perfume entered before she did. That was always a mistake.
Leave a slight trail like a memory behind you,
but never let your perfume arrive before you."

"If grief were a perfume, it would be all top notes with nothing to follow."

I found much about this novel to love. It was historically interesting, emotionally brilliant, and full of passion, love, friendships, betrayal, hope, and ultimately, forgiveness. It is a novel both to be devoured and savored. ( )
1 vote Staciele | Jun 10, 2014 |
I had heard of Lee Miller but only briefly and if you'd caught me on the street and asked me who she was, I probably couldn't have told you beyond the fact that her name was familiar. Now if you asked me who Man Ray or Pablo Picasso were, I could have told you pretty easily. That Miller was herself was the face of the surrealism movement, a model and an acclaimed photographer turned war correspondent who photographed the brutality of WWII, I did not know so it was fascinating to encounter Miller in Jeanne Mackin's new novel, The Beautiful American.

Nora Tours played with Li Li Miller in Poughkeepsie, NY where Miller was the daughter of a wealthy man and Nora the daughter of his gardener. But their childhood and long ago play times, which ended abruptly when they were still small, were long in the past when Nora runs into Lee again in Paris in the closing years of the 1920s. Lee has become a famous model and fashion photographer by then. She's also the mistress of surrealist Man Ray. Nora has run away to Paris with her boyfriend, Jamie, who is in pursuit of success in his own art, also photography. When they encounter each other again in Paris, Lee recognizes Nora, not as her former playmate, but as a girl she met in a bookstore and so rekindles their strange acquaintance even as both women hold back pieces of themselves from the other.

Jamie is thrilled by this entrée into the highest art circles as they come to know and rub shoulders with the famous and the well-connected. But knowing highly regarded artists does not translate to success for Jamie and the stresses of his continued failure, made more evident in the bright lights of those around him takes its toll on Nora and Jamie's relationship. Nora loves Jamie, having turned her back on her conventional mother and hometown to run away with him, but throughout the years in Paris she always hopes for him to marry her and make their relationship conform to societal standards. She still harbors those hopes when she finds herself pregnant, at least until a terrible betrayal forces her to see that she can rely on no one but herself.

As World War II comes ever closer, Nora raises her child in the south of France in the home of a kindly Russian émigré and works on the floor and then in the offices of perfume factories. She continues to miss Jamie but daughter Dahlia is the center of her world. And it is the disappearance of sixteen year old Dahlia after the end of the war that pushes Nora, now a devastated mother searching for her child, back into Lee's orbit after so many years. Somehow, despite her need to continue searching for Dahlia, she finds herself agreeing first to lunch with Lee and then to a weekend at the farm outside of London where Lee and her husband are living.

Because Nora has known Lee almost since the beginning, she knows secrets that almost no one else knows or suspects about this seductive and passionate woman. But Nora also knows how flip and callous Lee can be, how wrapped in her own selfishness. As Nora spends the weekend with this mercurial woman, she reflects on her own past, both when she knew Lee in Poughkeepsie and Paris and afterwards in Grasse when Nora did what she had to in order for she and her daughter to survive the war. And through it all, she aches for the loss of her daughter in this strangely cheerful, almost hedonistic place.

Mackin has written an engrossing novel about memory, art, and violence and their cost to women. Her use of the fictional Nora to round out the picture of Miller is well done and gives the character of Miller an even-handed balance. She has captured the reckless heedlessness of a world on the brink of war and the desperate and angry atmosphere after it, the reprisals and the rapes that no one cared enough about to stop. Nora is an appealing character, sometimes naïve but principled and resolute. Despite the fact that she makes mistakes and carries regret with her as a heavy baggage, she does not allow that to curtail her future. Lee is a character who inspires more ambivalent feelings, a victim who learned to overcome her past and to use herself and her talent as a commodity to get what she wanted no matter who she hurt. The contrast between the women, clear even since their childhood, drives much of the plot but so do the parallels in their lives. While the novel opens with Nora searching fruitlessly for Dahlia, this is not the main thread to the story, and it takes a while before the reader realizes this and stops waiting for the story to return to Nora's search. Although the story seems to be about Lee and those who surrounded her, it is also very much the story of Nora, a woman who is in so many ways the antithesis of Lee. Mackin has written a compulsively readable novel about these two different women, one real and one fictional, the world they lived in, and the power of the past. ( )
1 vote whitreidtan | Jun 1, 2014 |
Inspired by a real-life model of the 20s-30s who became a photographer. ( )
  picardyrose | May 27, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0451465822, Paperback)

From Paris in the 1920s to London after the Blitz, two women find that a secret from their past reverberates through years of joy and sorrow....

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 1920s 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 to forge a meaningful connection as women who have shared the best and the worst that life can offer?

A novel of freedom and frailty, desire and daring, The Beautiful American portrays the extraordinary relationship between two passionate, unconventional women.

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(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:31 -0400)

While searching for her daughter in London after the blitz, expat American Nora Tours encounters an old friend, a famous model-turned-photographer, giving them both a chance to forgive past betrayals and reforge a meaningful connection.

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