by Jeanne Mackin
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Published: June 2014
Publisher: New American Library/Penguin
Genre: France, Historical, 1920s, WWII
Paperback: 352 pages
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.
Loved how this story weaves the life of the model/photographer, Lee Miller, with historical events all told from the perspective of the fictional character, Nora. Reading about Lee's background and of the events that shaped her left me in awe of this amazing woman.
I am now compelled to check out the works by Lee Miller, Man Ray and Pablo Picasso to seek out the artwork references made and to see more.
The side story of Nora, was also just as compelling to read. She turns out to be a strong and independent woman in her own right during that time period.
After moving to France, Nora's description of living in the hip and happening Paris and then the quiet suburb Grasse gave wonderful snapshots of the two cities.
Nora's connection with the world of perfume and being a kind of "nose" in that business provided an interesting exposure to that world and how it fared through the time period presented.
Author guest post:
a bit about the main character, Lee, in the story...
I first ‘met’ Lee Miller when I was looking at some of the surrealist photography of Man Ray, who lived in Paris in the 20’s and 30’s, and again after World War II. She was such a stunningly beautiful woman with this magical, mysterious and also somehow tragic face. I wanted to get to know much more about her, and that fascination was the beginning of my novel about Lee, The Beautiful American (New American Library 2014).
Turns out, she was an upstate girl, born in Poughkeepsie! How she became a Vogue model, with her face and figure setting the standards for flapper beauty in the 20’s, and then a glamorous expat living in Paris and meeting Picasso and other celebrities, was the heart of the story, and a really great place for a writer to ‘live in’ for the length of time it took me to write the book.
What made Lee a truly unforgettable, writable person, though, was the fact that during and after the war, she was so brave, so determined, to record what was going on in Europe. She had already become a photographer herself, taking portraits and doing marketplace shoots. But this beautiful, talented woman who could have gone back home and stayed safe not only stayed on in England and Europe photographing the blitz and the battles, she photographed the liberation of the concentration camps.
The initial tragedy in her beautiful face stemmed from a violence done to her in childhood; the later tragedy reflects those haunting photos of war.
That was Lee Miller, to me: a gorgeous yet haunted woman who lived through some of the best and worst moments of the twentieth century.
About the author:
She lives in upstate New York with her husband, cats and herd of deer, and is still trying to master the French subjunctive.
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