Le Divorce 4-Copy Prepackby Diane Johnson, Suzanne Toren
When California girl Isabel Walker, film school dropout, comes to visit her stepsister Roxy in Paris, she arrives on the day that Roxy's French husband,
Diane Johnson, two-time finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, a noted observer of our times, has written a sparkling contemporary novel on Americans abroad that is hilariously insightful.
When California girl Isabel Walker, film school dropout, comes to visit her stepsister Roxy in Paris, she arrives on the day that Roxy's French husband, Charles-Henri de Persand, has left her for another woman. Roxy is distraught and pregnant. Charles-Henri's powerful and prestigious French family is counseling patience and acceptance, Isabel is soon caught up in the romantic intrigue: and Roxy's parents are just as soon on their way to France to lend their daughter support. Add to all of this a contretemps over a painting belonging to the Walkers but given by Roxy as a wedding gift to her husband, which turns out to be extremely valuable. It is, as the French say, a situation.
It is also the basis for a comedy of manners that looks with delicious wit at cultures and carnal desires in collision; at the absurd way in which love can lead us toward grand tragedy or, at least, toward jealous crimes of the heart. Le Divorceis a literary French treat, served with exquisite prose, superb plotting and much fun.
Le Divorce is about two stepsisters from Southern California who wind up living in Paris. Roxy, the elder, is a poet who has married a Frenchman and has all but become French herself; Isabel is a college dropout (she's considering a film career) who comes to stay with her pregnant sister who was recently abandoned by her husband. But what Le Divorce is really concerned with, of course, is all manner of cultural clashes — about what it's like to be thrown into another culture as if one "has been asked to jump the space between two roofs."
Isabel, the book's smart and brassy narrator, arrives in Paris "hoping to get some of my rough edges buffed off that the University of Southern California had failed to efface." Yet she doesn't immediately share her sister's "unqualified admiration for all things European," which makes her a tart and reliable tour guide. She dislikes France's dogshit problem, for example, and its odd music ("Let's face it, their music is not our music"), and its residents' "gaiety fetish," and a thousand other things. Yet, as her sister's life becomes more difficult, Isabel takes a dignified, much older French man as a lover and finds herself seduced in more ways than one.
There is some splendid writing here about Isabel's unusual (she admits) interest in this 70-year-old public intellectual: "I felt that to be made love to by a large, handsome, white-haired man with his large engine (or whatever word Milton would have used in Paradise Lost, which I once had to read some of, horrible) and whose speaking might as well have been in tongues — it was like being fucked by God." But then there is splendid writing everywhere. For example, here is Johnson on why there is less obesity in food-loving France: "I think it has something to do with the cooperation of the sexes in France, so unlike the state of war we have at home, where everyone gets fat from despair and hostility, in order to erotically deprive their loved ones."
Le Divorce is a banquet marred only by its final course — a hasty and overblown ending that feels as if it belongs to an entirely different book. No matter. We're too busy digesting what's come before to be bothered by a final jolt of strangely spun sugar. --Salon
Johnson (Health and Happiness, 1990, etc.) traces what happens as uncomprehending members of two very different cultures attempt to understand one another. The often droll results are catalogued by Isabel Walker, a young woman sent from her native California to help her beleaguered stepsister. Roxanne Walker de Persanda poet long resident in Paris, with a French husband (Charles-Henri, a moderately successful painter) and a young daughteris pregnant again when she learns that her husband is having an affair with a married woman. Charles-Henri's elegant family, led by a daunting matriarch, become involved in the efforts to resolve the domestic drama. After all, they suggest, men must have their little follies. Isabel, bright, inquisitive, anxious to sample life, serves as a go-between, and along the way herself begins an affair with Edgar, an urbane diplomat and wonderfully self-assured lover some 50 years her senior. The rest of Isabel's well-heeled but somewhat contentious family arrive, and a marvelous scene ensues in which the Walkers and de Persands sit down for a meal and gradually realize that their tastes and ideas are hopelessly at odds. Johnson is especially good at catching the class-bound, cool, utter self- assurance of the French upper classes, and the determinedly frank, aggressive innocence of their American counterparts. Violence erupts when the husband of Charles-Henri's mistress goes on a shooting spree. There will be several deaths and some surprising but believable revelations about many of these people before Isabel emerges into her own, the only character to begin to grasp the limitations of each side of her transatlantic family.
A shrewd, carefully detailed portrait of the ways in which Americans and the French continue to romanticize, denigrate, and misapprehend each other, contained in a well-paced, believably dramatic narrative.
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If we do not find anything pleasant, at least we shall find something new.
I think of life as being like film because of what I learned at the film school at USC. Film, with its fitful changefulness, its arbitrary notions of coherence, contrasting with the static solemnity of painting, might also be a more appropriate medium for rendering what seems to be happening, and emblematic too perhaps of our natures, Roxy's and mine, and the nature of the two societies, American and French. The New World and the Old, however, is too facile a juxtaposition, and I do not draw the conclusions I began with. If you can begin with conclusions. But I suppose we all do.
I am, as I said, Isabel Walker, a young woman abroad who, in several months in Paris, has learned enough to be considerably changed-and is this not in fact the purpose of young Americans going abroad? To make them think of things they never thought of? I should explain who I was.
I had come to France planning to spend some months babysitting my pregnant sister Roxeanne's three-year-old, Geneviève (Gennie), reading books in French that I didn't expect to like much (had read a bit of Rabelais in school and thought it was disgusting, with its talk of farts and twats), and under the cover of being a help to Roxy, hoping to get some of my rough California edges buffed off that the University of Southern California had failed to efface. Leaving college (I had not actually graduated) ordinarily points one to the future, whereas France was not the future, it was only temporizing and staving off the day I would have to make real decisions. When I dropped out of college I became aware that the people in my world, usually so understanding and fond of me, had now a certain hardness of expression when asking me what I planned to do, as if they expected a serious and detailed answer, and my friends, as they awaited the results of their MCATs and LSATs, tended to avoid my eyes. I'll be working on my screenplay, I would tell them, and I'll be helping Roxy with her new baby, and I want to investigate the European film scene. But these statements only earned me a moment of silent scrutiny from my inquisitors before they changed the subject.
I arrived in Paris as scheduled-it is now six months ago-by coincidence the day after Roxy's French husband, Charles-Henri, walked out on her. I took a taxi from the airport, Roxy having explained that she didn't drive a car in France because she didn't want to take the time to go to traffic school. That seemed strange to me, since Roxy as a true Californian has been driving since she was sixteen. I couldn't even imagine a society where a young housewife wouldn't drive.
I had never before been abroad, unless you count Tijuana. Stumbling off the plane, I was too excited to be tired from the long flight. I felt an almost unpleasant thrill of apprehensiveness when the man stamped my passport, sort of as if I had been asked to jump the space between two roofs. Would I make it?
Everyone was speaking French. I had known they would be, of course, but had failed to anticipate my dismay. "Don't get too Frenchy," my father had told me when they took me to the plane. "Remember 'jus plain English's good enough for a 'Merican.' " This was a literary allusion to Kipling's "Why the Leopard Changed His Spots." ("Jus plain black's good enough for a---"-a word Margeeve had carefully whited out of our copy, and naturally we had never pronounced.) No chance of me changing my spots, though-I would never understand French, so I was now cut off from human communication.
My wits were in a turmoil of concern about the correct pronunciation of "Maître Albert," Roxy's street, lest the taxi man take me somewhere else altogether, and whether he would be surly, the way they are reputed to be, and, more generally, was coming to France a mistake and false detour in life? Roxy must have been watching from her window when I got there, or heard the rattle of the taxi in the street, and came out the big green wooden doors to meet me. She paid the taxi and kissed me. The taxi man leered amiably at both of us.
I was a little shocked by the stairwell of Roxy's apartment building, the peeling walls, the drab, sinking oaken treads. By now I have learned the beauty and value of seventeenth-century staircases and Louis Quinze furniture, but that first day, after the endless trip, I admit I had the feeling Roxy had come down in the world, from a California perspective, into a patch of bad luck. Or rather, I could imagine that our parents, especially Margeeve, would feel that way. I felt subtly co-opted by the secret that Roxy was living in reduced circumstances, here in this foreign place, and I wasn't to tell.
My sister Roxy-my stepsister really-is a poet. This is not an avocation but a vocation she trained for at the University of California at Irvine, and later at the University of Iowa. She has had a volume of poetry published by Illinois Wesleyan, and many poems in magazines. To tell the truth, I have always slightly resented the way our parents have encouraged her in this frivolous, totally unremunerative occupation, while urging me toward various careers such as accounting and personnel management-which means learning to interview people and assign them jobs-and computer service representative, to name only three of the peculiarly repellant occupations they, having heard of them for the first time in their lives, were willing to consecrate me to, so desperate were they to find something for which I might be fitted.
But I admire Roxy's poems, I don't mean otherwise. I wish I could find two screwy words and put them together so that they fizz, like she can. It always surprises me to read Roxy's poems, because in person, the way she talks, she just sounds like a normal person, you wouldn't have thought her thoughts would be odd and complicated.
There are people whose lives progress like one of those charts of heart attack, serrated peaks and valleys like shark's teeth, and my sister Roxeanne is such a person. I loved her from the moment we met, at the marriage of my father to her mother when I was twelve and she seventeen. As we grew up, I adored the way she rushed home from school, slammed the door of her room and wept histrionically. Later there were her school prizes and being the valedictorian, her causes and theses, her poetry and passionate seriousness-and then the surprising glamour of her romantic marriage to the charming Frenchman, and now the surprising drama of their breakup.
We are so different, my stepsister and I, that people don't compare us, and that has kept us friends. Hence my mission, for so it could be called, to come to Paris to help her with the new baby soon to arrive, and now, it seemed, to support her in this crisis. Ordinarily I would not be someone very good at baby-sitting. But I have always been good at helping Roxy; it was always I who picked up both our clothes and straightened our closets.
Roxy looked well, I thought, and only a little stouter than when I'd seen her last summer, not really showing yet. Her hair was cut to shoulder length, straight across the bottom, like pictures of Joan of Arc. Her hair and eyes are exactly the same light brown as a lovely forest animal's, and her skin was lit from within like a rosy parchment lampshade. I had never seen her look so well, but there was something distracted about her manner. "Charles-Henri is in the country," she told me immediately. At first, that was all she told me about his absence. But I was too jet-lagged to take in much. A heavy hemlockian sleepiness was already seeping in on me.
"You look wonderful, Izzy," she said. "Don't you love Paris? I know you will. Give me that bag. Is that all you brought? Good thing-your room hasn't got a closet. I forgot to tell you, no closets in France. Gennie's at her day care." And so on.
Her apartment was small, white-painted, with an antique chest of drawers missing some sections of its inlaid wood, and a leather sofa, and several of Charles-Henri's large abstracts. There was a stone fireplace with our family's painting of Saint Ursula over it, her dreamy smile seeming to welcome me, a familiar face from my own past, like a family photograph. I had always thought the woman in the painting was a princess accepting the rich tributes of a wealthy wooer, but Roxeanne has always said she is Saint Ursula, the virgin/warrior saint. I suppose this shows Roxy's nature, exigent and chaste, despite her pregnancy and the romantic nature of her predicament. Saint Ursula was a fourth-century virgin who was massacred eventually, but in this painting, in a contemplative moment in her chamber, she reposes, a book on her lap, disdaining a heap of gifts from the king who wishes to marry her. Two handmaidens standing behind her seem sternly supportive. The room is dark except for a candle on the table at her elbow, and it is the glow of this candle, softly illuminating her face and incidentally the gold and jewels behind her, that has brought up the name of Georges de La Tour.
I believe Roxy loved this picture better when we did not know the girl was Saint Ursula, nor the painter La Tour (if it was)-before it had value, before it became the center and symbol of acrimony.
--from Le Divorce by Diane Johnson, copyright © 1997 Diane Johnson, published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Diane Johnson is an American-born novelist and essayist. A two-time finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in three different genres-essay, biography,and fiction-she isthe author of the bestselling novel Le Divorce, a 1997 National Book Award finalist, as well as twelve other books, including the novels Persian Nights, Health and Happiness, Lying Low, The Shadow Knows, and Burning (all available in Plume editions). She is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and splits her time between San Francisco and Paris.
- Paris, France, and San Francisco, California
- Date of Birth:
- April 28, 1934
- Place of Birth:
- Moline, Illinois
- B.A., University of Utah; M.A., Ph.D., UCLA, 1968
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