The Beautiful American, by Jeanne Mackin, tells the story of Nora Tours, a young American woman from Poughkeepsie, New York, whose life crosses paths with that of famous photographer Lee Miller more than once. As the years pass, the two women’s fates become intertwined in more ways than one.
Nora is the daughter of the Millers’ gardener, and as she grew up, her father, the descendant of a French perfumer who fled the Revolution, shared with her his passion for perfumes and how they’re made. As the gardener’s daughter, Nora becomes a sort of playmate to Lee, especially after a terrible childhood tragedy that will leave physical and emotional scars on Lee forever. The two young women meet later on in Paris, where Nora is living with her boyfriend, Jamie, who dreams of becoming a photographer. Lee, who is a photographer and fashion model herself, introduces both Nora and Jamie to her lover, famous photographer, Man Ray. Nora is whisked into the last years of the Lost Generation in Paris, where she meets such luminaries as Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso. While Jamie works for Man, Nora does what she can to support him. Lee and Man’s relationship, however, isn’t so rosy. Man is obsessively jealous of Lee, his muse, while Lee pursues other men. Friendship turns into betrayal when Lee takes up with Jamie. Heartbroken and pregnant, Nora leaves Paris for the south of France. Here, she stays with a friend of Picasso’s, a Russian émigrée named Madame Hughes, and gives birth to her daughter, Dahlia.
As the years pass, Nora raises her daughter and finds work in the sales department of a French perfume company. She also embarks on a relationship with Madame Hughes’s charming son, Nikolai, who runs a hotel by the seaside. Nora has finally found contentment…until World War II breaks out. With the invasion of France by the Nazis in 1940, Nora finds herself in a precarious position, selling perfume to the occupying forces while doing what she can to assist Nicky, who is working with the French Resistance. As their situation grows more dangerous, Nora, Dahlia, and Madame Hughes are smuggled to Switzerland, where they wait out the war as refugees. When they return to France, they discover that Nicky was arrested and executed by the Nazis and Vichy government. It is all too much for Madame Hughes to bear, and she dies soon after, leaving Nora and Dahlia alone in their cottage. A tragic history from Nora’s childhood repeats itself, though, and Dahlia is left traumatized. After Nora’s arrest for being a Nazi collaborator and subsequent release once the authorities discovered she aided the Resistance, she returns home to find her daughter missing. Frantic, she searches high and low for Dahlia, only to find her way to England, where she encounters Lee again. Lee is now a renowned photographer, famous for her bravery during World War II, and married with a child of her own. Both women are now at a crossroads, and must move beyond the transgressions of their past and the hurt it caused so that Nora can find her daughter.
Mackin’s writing is magical and takes the reader to another time, all the while evoking the scents of such famous vintage perfumes such as Chanel No. 5 and L’Heure Bleue. Nora has an exceptional sense of smell, and this takes her far in the perfume industry, and she even picks up the old family trade of mixing custom scents for her friends and neighbors in the village. Nora’s time in France is a return to her family’s roots, and she carries on her family’s legacy long after they had left their home country. There are two minor historical errors, one being the date of the Nazis entering France, which is given as June 10, 1940, instead of June 14, 1940, and the name of Lee’s son being listed as Antony, and not Anthony, Penrose. Despite this, The Beautiful American is a lovely, sprawling story of two women finding places for themselves and making peace with one another in a world torn apart by war.