Breathless: An American Girl in Paris

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Overview


In the early 1960s, most middle-class American women in their twenties had their lives laid out for them: marriage, children, and life in the suburbs. Most, but not all.

Breathless is the story of a girl who represents those who rebelled against conventional expectations. Paris was a magnet for those eager to resist domesticity, and like many young women of the decade, Nancy K. Miller was enamored of everything French—from perfume and Hermès scarves to the writing of Simone de ...

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Breathless: An American Girl in Paris

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Overview


In the early 1960s, most middle-class American women in their twenties had their lives laid out for them: marriage, children, and life in the suburbs. Most, but not all.

Breathless is the story of a girl who represents those who rebelled against conventional expectations. Paris was a magnet for those eager to resist domesticity, and like many young women of the decade, Nancy K. Miller was enamored of everything French—from perfume and Hermès scarves to the writing of Simone de Beauvoir and the New Wave films of Jeanne Moreau. After graduating from Barnard College in 1961, Miller set out for a year in Paris, with a plan to take classes at the Sorbonne and live out a great romantic life inspired by the movies.

After a string of sexual misadventures, she gave up her short-lived freedom and married an American expatriate who promised her a lifetime of three-star meals and five-star hotels. But her husband wasn't who he said he was, and she eventually had to leave Paris and her dreams behind.

This stunning memoir chronicles a young woman’s coming-of-age tale, and offers a glimpse into the intimate lives of girls before feminism.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
08/12/2013
In a graceful, aching memoir of her ingénue years in Paris, comparative literature professor and author Miller (What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past) re-creates a time of fledgling sexual liberation and rueful homecoming. Breaking away from home with her intellectual, Jewish parents in Manhattan, where she had felt “conned” to live during her college years at Barnard, Miller blissfully took off for study at the Sorbonne in fall of 1961, resolved to be the Jean Seberg character in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and be adventurous and independent. In that pre-feminist era, she quickly learned that sleeping with men was effortless but achieving sexual satisfaction was not. In her naivety, as her time in Paris lengthened and she won a Fulbright teaching fellowship, she often confused sex with finding the right “dream-companion” á la Simone de Beauvoir, and was frequently disappointed, from falling for the leather-clad beatnik on the motorcycle, Leo; the earnest Tunisian student Bernard, who wanted to marry her; and the overbearing Irishman Jim Donovan, the head of a self-run language school, who hired her and married her. In her sweetly ironical, fondly forgiving look back at her youth, it actually took an affair with a humble German carpenter named Hans to help Miller escape her “nice-Jewish-girl destiny” and find her way home again. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

“A real-life Dud Avocado, this memoir is a provocative account of a feminist scholar’s sexual awakening set amid the backdrop of 1960s Paris.”
Library Journal

“Miller’s memoir will resonate with women who, over the years, have been fascinated by Jean Seberg’s role as Patricia in the Godard film Breathless (1960) . . . Her look back is filled with vintage vignettes of garret apartments, matronly concierges, and the silk-lingerie splurges of a poor young student’s milieu.”
Booklist

Breathless, a deliriously satisfying account of erotic awakening and disillusionment, unfolds as a chain of tightly crafted, riveting vignettes, each episode as mesmerizing as the city enshrined at the book’s center. Simone de Beauvoir would have loved this story. Jean-Paul Sartre, too. But Nancy K. Miller is more entertaining than both of them put together. Her book offers a beautifully distilled parable about the difficulties of finding a direct path to happiness.”
Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Andy Warhol

"This cautionary memoir of a girl's fantasy adventure in Paris gone awry reads like a witty novel. Its vivid scenes are frequently hilarious, sometimes sad, and always engrossing. That it really happened only makes it better."
Alix Kates Shulman, author of To Love What Is

"A steamy portrait of the jeune fille before she became a feminist. A wonderful reminder of what it meant to be a good daughter determined to become a bad girl in the roiling sixties. I loved every chapter of this American’s sex-obsessed quest for identity in Paris."
Susan Gubar, author of Memoir of a Debulked Woman

"Witty, wise, poignant, and funny, Breathless is an extraordinary memoir about a young woman’s adventures and misadventures in Paris, a city that was for her as much an idea as a place. Miller’s vividly told memories, keen intelligence, gentle irony, and striking gift for narrative pacing held me captive from beginning to end."
Siri Hustvedt, author of What I Loved and The Summer Without Men

"Surprising, daring, funny, wise, and profound."
Elaine Showalter, author of A Jury of Her Peers

Breathless, Nancy Miller's wry and wonderful new memoir about a romantic (and chastening) student sojourn she spent in Paris in the early 1960s, is a delicious, picaresque, often hilarious female 'coming of age' story—full of zest and pathos and more than a few glints of Proustian profondeur. . . . [Miller] offers a story at once salutary, intelligent, deeply humorous, and ineluctably bittersweet: the souvenir of a magical mise-en-scène, from a brilliant young woman who paid attention to it all.”
Terry Castle, author of The Professor and Other Writings

"An artful portrait of youthful indiscretion in a bygone time."
Bustle

Kirkus Reviews
2013-12-08
A coming-of-age tale covering the author's 20s in Paris, where she studied, worked, lived on her own for the first time, fell in and out of love, and found solid ground beneath her feet. Miller (English and Comparative Literature/Graduate Center, CUNY; What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, 2011, etc.) has previously mined her past in memoirs about herself and the lives of her parents. This book takes its name from the Godard film, which inspired the author, upon graduating from Barnard College in 1961, to move to Paris at 21. While studying at the Sorbonne, Miller sought freedom from her parents' incessant meddling and attempted to swap her "nice-Jewish-girl" identity for a life of sophistication and romance. She writes of her transformation from wide-eyed naif ("I didn't set out to sleep with Philippe") to a confident, individualized woman capable of making her own decisions--about whom to date, where to live and work, and the direction of her future. Repeatedly, she revisits her perceived lack of self-understanding and the myriad experiences that informed her self-awareness and capacity to recognize and give voice to her own desires. Miller's first year in France truly represented a necessary break from the lifelong pressures of "les parents terribles," and it was followed by more space after she received a Fulbright teaching fellowship, enabling her to stay longer. After a couple years, Miller met and eloped with an older American expat who ran a language school. The book's final half is dominated by the marriage's highs and lows, the latter of which contributed even more fully to Miller's break from controlling influences and resulted in her trusting her own judgment. Originally in search of salvation from her family, Miller found the external adventures she'd craved and painful ones she hadn't anticipated, and she went through a deeply personal transformation. Articulate, keen and satisfying.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580054881
  • Publisher: Avalon Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/5/2013
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 469,835
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author


After graduating from Barnard College, Nancy K. Miller sailed to Paris to study French literature and complete a master’s degree. Already in love with the city from movies and novels, she hoped to create a new, more sophisticated identity for her twenty-year-old, nice-New York-Jewish-girl self. Several years of adventures and misadventures later, including marriage to an American ex-pat, Miller returned to New York minus the husband but ready to reinvent herself as an academic and writer.

Now a well-known feminist scholar, Miller has authored and edited more than a dozen books, publishing literary criticism, personal essays, and family memoirs. Her most recent memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, won the Jewish Journal Prize for 2012 and told the story of her quest to recreate her family’s lost history. She is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY, where she teaches classes in memoirs, graphic novels, and women’s studies. Miller lectures widely, both nationally and internationally, and her work is anthologized in popular volumes on autobiography and collections of feminist essays. She also co-edits Columbia University Press’s Gender and Culture series, which she co-founded in 1983 with the late Carolyn Heilbrun.

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