Sunday, June 1, 2014

Review: The Beautiful American by Jeanne Mackin

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.

For more information about Jeanne Mackin and the book, check out her website. Look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to the publisher for sending my a copy of this book to review.

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