The Beautiful American

Written by Jeanne Mackin
Review by Audrey Braver

The Beautiful American is a work of fiction that follows an artists’ colony in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. While one of the main characters, Lee Miller, and some subsidiary characters were real people, the story unfolds through the eyes of the fictional heroine, Nora Tours, an American who was Lee Miller’s childhood friend in Poughkeepsie, New York. The horrific rape that Lee suffered as a child ended their friendship. When their paths cross again in Paris, Lee is a protégée and mistress of Man Ray, and she acts as if she and Nora had just met. Nora plays along because Man Ray has taken on her lover, Jamie, an aspiring photographer, as a studio assistant and student.

Despite Lee’s pretense that she and Nora were strangers until Paris, they still become close friends until a betrayal causes a rift that sends a pregnant Nora running alone to Grasse, a confused Jamie running home to Poughkeepsie, and Lee into a marriage with Azziz Eloui Bey, a wealthy Egyptian. Lee and Nora’s paths cross once more sixteen years later when Nora is in post-war London searching for her runaway child. Lee invites Nora for a weekend in the country. In gratitude for not divulging her secrets to the other houseguests, Lee vows to help Nora locate her child.

Mackin employs Nora as a narrator and on-looker much the way F. Scott Fitzgerald uses Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. However, Nora has her own pertinent story, which ties everything together in a masterful way. Mackin’s intelligent and sympathetic portrayal of Lee Miller, one of the undisputed beauties of her day, a model and World War II photojournalist, makes this novel an outstanding read.