BREATHLESS: AN AMERICAN GIRL IN PARIS
By Nancy K. Miller
Seal Press, 238pp, $16.
The front cover of Nancy K. Miller’s absorbing new memoir, An American Girl in Paris, shows a young woman in an overcoat, dark hair teased into a low beehive, smiling at the camera as she strolls along the banks of the Seine. Her pose looks confident, but a closer looks shows a little uncertainty in her smile, as though she’s aware that she’s trying too hard to play the role of an insouciant local and disguise what she really is: a brainy, sheltered Upper West Side girl trying to run away from home. The snapshot is a revealing window into what follows, the tension between confidence and timidity, between growth and regression, above all the desire to become something other that what you were raised and trained to be.
The uncertain girl in the picture is now a prominent feminist scholar and senior professor at the City University of New York, but in 1961 she was a naïve Barnard graduate obsessed with French nouvelle vague films and their fantasy world of youthful rebellion. Miller saw herself in Jean Seberg’s Patricia, the young woman with the pixie crop in Godard’s Breathless, who sells the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Elysees and falls for Jean-Paul Belmondo’s smoldering delinquent. But as Miller gradually learns over her years in Paris as a student and teacher, translator and homemaker, New Wave glamour is fleeting, and romantic misadventures are much harder to enjoy offscreen.
Being young in Paris, especially as experienced and described by Francophile American girls, is a common theme for memoir — stories that can ooze, like a ripe Camembert, with nostalgia and sentiment. Miller’s Breathless, although it is saturated with the chilly beauty of Paris, is no lyrical indulgence. It is far sharper, and more honest, than that. Miller’s story is as much about the effort to escape her parents as it is about day-to-day life in Paris. Much of her turbulent family relationship is reconstructed through the letters and diaries that form a formidable archive of love and resentment. Given the expense of transatlantic travel and telephone calls, writing is the only way to explain and justify behavior. Nancy’s father, a lawyer, writes indictments and accusations; Nancy writes an image of herself that is shaped by the books she is trying to live inside; her (temporary) husband writes like the evasive fabulist he has become in an effort to escape his Irish Catholic Boston upbringing. Through the flurry of letters, we see Nancy trying to push herself past the restrictions of a 1950s American upbringing and all the domestic expectations it entails toward a new place of honesty — but at the same time, she’s constantly pulled back to her parents and their world. Her first fling in Paris is with their married friend.
Miller’s highly personal memoir is at the same time a vivid portrait of a city and an era as youth culture begins to take hold — to the bewilderment of parents and, more often than they’ll admit, of the young people themselves. From the front of her all-girls student dorm, Nancy takes off on the back of a motorcycle with her American Belmondo. But freedom proves to be a trickier proposition for women in a world of unreliable contraception and male partners unwilling to sacrifice their own freedom to do as they like. After an interrupted engagement, a pregnancy scare, and an abortion in Tunisia, Miller tries to make a life as a Paris housewife with a husband who struggles to run a language school and fancies himself James Joyce. She even stumbles, like the trapped wife in a French novel, into an affair with the carpenter who’s renovating her apartment, and ends up back in New York as the May 1968 Paris student protests ignite.
These stories, even the disasters, are told with a striking wit and honesty. At the clear-eyed distance of half a century, Miller lets her younger self off the hook for some things, but for others lets her dangle mercilessly — especially when it comes to her inability to break free from destructive relationships. When she has set up home with Jim, her petty tyrant of a husband, Miller realizes that all his black socks have a slightly different pattern, which she recalls studying “as carefully as a text, looking for the pattern” in order to match like with like. But even disguised as close reading, laundry is not creativity. “I think I knew the socks were not a text,” she remarks drily.
Miller’s youthful Paris is not the façade of the movies but a perilously crumbling reality, in which charming old buildings lack reliable plumbing, and patronizing, avuncular doctors and professors prey on young women as a habit. The food is sublime, but always accompanied by the pressure to appreciate it correctly and perfect its preparation. As Miller eventually learns, Paris is a place of endless romantic possibility but it is not, in the end, magical — the city cannot root out the American in the author or transform her into someone else. But that hard lesson, and how she learns it, still make for a breathtaking story.