November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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The Beautiful American/Book Review



Hitting the Base Notes


“The Beautiful American”
by Jeanne Mackin
NAL Trade Paperback Original
ISBN: 978-0451465825
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
Price: $16.00

I first met Jeanne Mackin during a visit with her husband, Steve Poleskie, at their home in Ithaca, New York. I was about to leave when Jeanne showed up and offered to make lunch, which turned out to be turkey and cheese with honey on sourdough bread – with white wine, of course. It was a delightful interlude on a beautiful day when I was in Ithaca on other business and took what I thought would be just a moment to say hello to Steve.

The next time I saw her, last summer, she had just signed a two-book deal and shared her anxiety about being able to finish both on deadline, which did not seem to be too far off. As it is, she finished the first, which is The Beautiful American, a wonderful tale of the interwoven lives of two women, a protagonist whose beauty and fame led her in a direction of lively adventure, a flight from personal sorrow and ultimate but shadowed fame, while the other experienced the fascination of living a dream, seeing it shattered and then literally and figuratively having it reborn. I don’t know anything about the second book, but I trust it will be as engaging as the first.

The Beautiful American, of course, is Lee Miller, a girl from Poughkeepsie, New York, who became a Vogue model, lover, mistress and protogé of the Surrealist photographer and artist Man Ray, friend of Picasso and numerous other Surrealist luminaries living in Paris in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and one of the most influential photographers of World War II. The narrator is Nora, Mackin’s creation, a parallel figure in Miller’s life whose own story carries the reader along through highs and lows of the artistic life, France under fascism into and through World War II,  and briefly into the second half of the Twentieth Century when the women cross paths a final time and their personal triumphs and fortunes are revealed.

Mackin’s ability to craft characters and re-create history, writing stories inside stories to generate a literary DNA, in this case a double helix of main events that drive one another to the end, marks her special talent as novelist and story teller.  Mackin gives us scenes and situations that fit together and come apart like Russian dolls, one by one until the last, with detail that gives perspective to the whole, wherein the construction becomes complete and absolute.

Events recounted from Miller’s life give shape to the kind of woman she understandably could and did become. The influence she had on those around her colors the fabric of the tale. But this story is as much about Nora, childhood friend, confidante, parfumer  extraordinaire, and one of the many people in Miller’s life the goddess purportedly and purposefully betrayed – simply because she could.  We pick up a book to read about the life of a famous American, and end up as interested in the complexities of normality that afflict the fictional narrator. One might ask, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” Who is more important? Who is more real, who would we rather be?

From that fragile web and in this book, Mackin weaves together lives hauled up through muddy waters of the past into a kind of light where hardship hardly matters any more. A satisfying resolution to a story of note about two women that just as easily could have ended in despair.


About the reviewer:

Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him on the “About Us” page. 

Also in this issue: Foldes’ interview with Jeanne Mackin