“Some memories, the more you talk about them, the stronger they become.”
The Beautiful American by Jeanne Mackin
Published June 3, 2014 by New American Library/Penguin
Format: paperback; 352 pages
Cover Appeal: A
Also From This Author: The Sweet By and By, The Frenchwoman
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My Rating: 4/5
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 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.
A novel of freedom and frailty, desire and daring, The Beautiful American portrays the extraordinary relationship between two passionate, unconventional women.
This novel brought on so many nostalgic feelings! One of my favorite things about reading novels set in France is all the cultural references I get to latch on to. I like reading about a city or cuisine or French habit and being able to say, “Yes! I know exactly what that is.” I’ve read some books set in France that had too many cultural and French language errors for me to be able to enjoy reading it. The Beautiful American is not one of those books. Jeanne Mackin depicts a vividly accurate and alive portrait of France, so that it is a character as much as it is a setting.
The book starts off to a slower tempo but that really adds to the whole suspense of the novel. We know right from the beginning that Nora, our main character and American expatriate, is searching for her missing daughter, and is also hiding a torturous and heartbreaking past. Then suddenly we are presented with detailed flashbacks of a promiscuous and carefree 1920s Paris. During these earlier flashbacks I kept comparing The Beautiful American to The Great Gatsby; they both play with themes of 1920s idealism, and the suspense I mentioned earlier is strengthened by the foreboding knowledge that everything is about to come crashing down. Once it finally does, you cannot put this book down until you know how it ends.
I was happy, and nothing in the world can make you oblivious to your surroundings like happiness.
As far as historical fiction novels go, this one is captivating and inspiring. Nora and her celebutante childhood friend are bold and courageous characters who witness some true horrors from the WWII era. As a warning to anyone interested in reading this book, there is some mild sex and violence that is unsettling but not explicit.
If you are a fan of historical fiction that feels real and intense, The Beautiful American will no doubt be an enjoyable novel for you! You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to WWII era France even if you’ve never been to France before in your life :)
Read This Book If…:
…you love France!
…you enjoy reading historical fiction that takes place in Europe during WWII
…you like The Great Gatsby (it has that same 1920s idealism that you just know is about to collapse)
…you’re longing for a book that will captivate you even after you’ve turned the last page
Praise for The Beautiful American
“Readers will rank [it] right up there with The Paris Wife…. A brilliant, beautifully written literary masterpiece…”–New York Times bestselling author Sandra Dallas
“Will transport you to expat Paris… and from there take you on a journey through the complexities of a friendship…breathes new life into such luminaries as Man Ray, Picasso, and, of course, the titular character, Lee Miller, while at the same time offering up a wonderfully human and sympathetic protagonist in Nora Tours.”–Suzanne Rindell, author of The Other Typist
“Achingly beautiful and utterly mesmerizing… Sure to appeal to fans of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Erika Robuck’s Call Me Zelda, or indeed to anyone with a taste for impeccably researched and beautifully written historical fiction.”– Jennifer Robson, author of Somewhere in France
“Beautiful…A fascinating account of a little-known woman who was determined to play by her own rules.”–Historical Novel Society
Jeanne Mackin is the author of several historical novels set in France, and has earned awards for her journalism
as well as a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, cats and herd of deer, and is still trying to master the French subjunctive.
Click here to enter a giveaway for Jeanne Mackin’s The Beautiful American. Five copies will be given away to US/Canada residents only.