Reviews

Breathless: An American Girl in Paris

Nancy K. Miller. Breathless

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Reviews

Miller’s zestful, poignant memoir brilliantly evokes how it feels to be a young woman in Paris steeped in desire and confusion, seeking answers and clarity, yet sensing that a state of uncertainty and amazement may be the most thrilling of all. Read the complete review
— Jenny McPhee, Bookslut

Though Miller is a floundering character in the book, she’s a sympathetic one, and the reader becomes easily invested in her story…The reader wants her to find it, though we know she’s looking in all the wrong places. Read the complete review
— Melissa Duclos, Booktrib

What makes Miller’s book astonishing is its sexual frankness and emotional forthrightness, as well as its elegant references to French cultural parallels. This includes Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 Nouvelle Vague film ‘Breathless’ (‘À bout de souffle’), starring Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Read the complete review
My French Life

The front cover of Nancy K. Miller’s absorbing new memoir, [Breathless] 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. Read the complete review
— Joanna Scutts, Signature

Bittersweet tale of author Nancy K. Miller’s “escape’ to Paris in the early 1960s. She hopes to sample Paris breathlessly à la Jean Seberg, but finds more disappointment than romance…A very funny, cautionary memoir by the feminist and literary professor.
Cara Magazine

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 . . . Articulate, keen and satisfying.
Kirkus Reviews

Nancy’s misadventures make for an exciting read and just may inspire you to take risks in your own life. Read the complete review
— Emily Laurence, Metro US

With all the melancholy detachment of the French movies that brought her to Paris in the first place, Miller has created an artful portrait of her younger self, one which doesn’t shy away from her flaws, but displays them proudly. Read the complete review — Emma Cueto, Bustle

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. Read the complete review
— Meg Rynott, The Whynott Blog

[Breathless] is a provocative account of a feminist scholar’s sexual awakening set amid the backdrop of 1960s Paris. Read the complete review
Library Journal

An artful portrait of youthful indiscretion in a bygone time. Read the complete review
Bustle

In a graceful, aching memoir of her ingénue years in Paris, comparative literature professor and author Miller re-creates a time of fledgling sexual liberation and rueful homecoming . . . 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 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.
Publishers Weekly

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

Advance Praise

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. Arriving in Paris in 1961 at the age of 22, the Manhattan-born Miller—middle-class, Jewish, Francophile (she’d been a French literature major at Barnard)—was in some ways the classic Audrey Hepburn-style American ingenue: lively, attractive, daring, besotted with dreams of Parisian glamor and style (not to mention various erotic fancies involving French men). She was also painfully naive, sexually unguarded, and largely unprepared for the checkered emotional journey on which she was about to embark. The descriptions here of Godard movies, madcap scooter rides with Belmondo-like boys, disastrous yet comic trysts with assorted cynical older men, Disques Bleu cigarettes, Jean Seberg, conjure up, delightfully, a now-lost time and place as vividly as any work of French New Wave cinema.

But Miller’s account of her education sentimentale has, too, its somber undercurrents—measured, above all, in her poignant sense of how hidebound, even degrading, the intellectual and erotic lives of ‘nice girls’ in the 1950s and ‘60s—even in the fabled City of Lights, where freedom, sophistication, and a finely calibrated love of pleasure were thought to reign. Paris in the early 1960s was a world in which feminism was just around the corner: you sense it coming in the young Nancy’s rebellious yet awkward experiments in life and love. Miller is clear-eyed and forgiving toward her younger self, but at the same time has no illusions about the price so many women paid—in France and elsewhere—on the way toward becoming themselves. She offers a story at once salutory, 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

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

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

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

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

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, but always engrossing. That it really happened only makes it better.
— Alix Kates Shulman