Le Divorce

( 23 )

Overview

In Le Divorce, Diane Johnson delightfully recounts the adventures of two sisters from California who make a modern pilgrimage to the City of Light.

Pregnant and abandoned by her French husband, Roxeanne Walker de Persand turns to her younger sister, Isabel, for support, while the powerful Persand family exerts subtle but firm control over her decision whether or not to divorce. Complicating matters is the disposition of a family heirloom, a painting in Roxy's possession that is ...

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Le Divorce

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Overview

In Le Divorce, Diane Johnson delightfully recounts the adventures of two sisters from California who make a modern pilgrimage to the City of Light.

Pregnant and abandoned by her French husband, Roxeanne Walker de Persand turns to her younger sister, Isabel, for support, while the powerful Persand family exerts subtle but firm control over her decision whether or not to divorce. Complicating matters is the disposition of a family heirloom, a painting in Roxy's possession that is suddenly discovered to be worth millions. In the midst of a variety of schemes, the stakes are suddenly raised by a crime of passion, disrupting everyone's motives and plans.

Not since Edith Wharton penned her brilliant portraits of Americans abroad has an American novelist so perfectly captured the possibilities and perils of succumbing to the allure of Paris.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It's no accident that the epigraph for this delightfully urbane social tragicomedy is taken from Henry James. Narrator Isabel Walker is a latter-day Isabel Archer, a charming, intelligent but nave American in Paris, who thinks herself sophisticated and analytical until her eyes are opened during the ironic, erotic and shocking events in the course of which she comes of age. Restless and unfocused, a drop-out from film school at Berkeley, Isabel is sent to Paris to help her pregnant step-sister, Roxy, through a difficult time: Roxy's husband, Charles-Henri Persand, has left her and their toddler daughter to run off with another woman. Isabel accepts a motley range of jobs in the American expatriate community-running errands, helping a famous writer with her files, serving at parties, etc.-and becomes aware of the jealousy and backbiting among the insular set. At first totally at sea because of the language barrier, she also gradually becomes aware that a chasm of misunderstandings and basic attitudinal differences lies beneath the cordial facade of Franco-American relationships. Meanwhile, an heirloom painting that Roxy brought to Paris is suddenly discovered to be an immensely valuable La Tour; under French law, it will be considered part of the divorce settlement. The tangled provenance of this painting creates tensions among the Walker family's half-siblings. The wealthy and powerful Persand family are also beset by a series of emotional involvements, including Isabel's own clandestine relationship with Charles-Henri's elderly uncle, a charming rou and political minence grise. By the time the various strands of the plot culminate in surreal scenes at EuroDisney and the poubelles (refuse bins) of Roxy's apartment building, Isabel has become wiser about herself and the world, though she realizes that her point of view will always be colored by her Californian mindset. Johnson's (Persian Nights) control of her material is impeccable. The world of American expatriates is fertile territory for her ironic wit, which is both subtle and sharp. Everything here delights the reader: the sinuous plot with its rising suspense; the charged insights into family dynamics; the reflections on morality as perceived on both sides of the Atlantic; the witty asides on food, politics and sibling rivalry; the dialogue, which reflects both American and French speech patterns and social conventions; and the views of Paris itself, seen through the eyes of an ingenue who grows in sophistication as she begins to understand the reality that permeates this city of romance. (Jan.)
Library Journal
In this frothy, forgettable tale of the vicissitudes experienced by two American sisters in Paris, Johnson (Health and Happiness, LJ, 9/15/90) introduces a winsome narrator and a somewhat interesting group of supporting characters. When college dropout Isabel Walker comes to Paris to help her pregnant sister, she gets more than she bargains for. Not only must she cope with Roxy's near-suicidal depression following the abrupt departure of her French husband and the resulting fuss over a potentially valuable family heirloom that has become a sticking point in the divorce settlement, but Isabel falls in love with Oscar, Roxy's 70-year-old uncle by marriage, a war hero and intellectual whose reputation for philandering equals his not inconsiderable charm and formidable intelligence. Johnson's ability to delineate characters in a line or two, her obvious fondness for Isabel (which readers will share), and her tart views of both French and American attitudes render plot pretty much beside the point. A pleasant way to spend an hour or two, this novel will add little to Johnson's reputation. In fact, fans of her earlier novels will have a hard time believing this is by the same author.-Nancy Linn Pearl, Washington Ctr. for the Book, Seattle
Dwight Garner
What makes Diane Johnson such a rewarding novelist (and travel writer) is her vivid, can-the-bullshit tone. Her new novel, Le Divorce, is thick with frank observation — about sex, manners, food, money — of the kind that illuminates all of her work, and it lifts the novel high above those of most other mid-career American writers. A critic at heart, Johnson scorns flowery prose and aching "sensitivity," preferring to get her hands dirty poking around in the human condition. She's a treat to read.

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

Kirkus Reviews
A modern collision of French and American mores begins in near farce but ends in tragedy in Johnson's bright, unsparing novel.

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 Persand—a poet long resident in Paris, with a French husband (Charles-Henri, a moderately successful painter) and a young daughter—is 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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452277335
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/1998
  • Series: William Abrahams Book Series
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 628,425
  • Product dimensions: 5.42 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Diane Johnson
Diane Johnson is the 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 divides her time between San Francisco and Paris.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Johnson shared some fun facts about herself:

"I worked for the UCLA library for a few months when I was 19 -- otherwise I never had a job until I became a professor, and I know people debate whether that is a job -- perhaps it's a privilege or a scam. So I'm not sure I've ever had a real job. My writing comes from life and from books, as everyone's does, and from my head. I try to nourish my head with art and wandering...."

"I am rather domestic and like to cook and sew, though not to do housework. And I love to ski. To wander around. To read. Am interested in animals and politics."

"I am always appalled when people send me books that they think I will like because of what the books I write are like. I almost always think they are too light and silly, and it rather hurts my feelings to see what people imagine. I don't really like to read novels -- I find it more amusing to write them to read them, but maybe this is only because reading them gets in the way of what I am trying to write. I am reading Max Weber at the moment, and some early Henry James -- The American. I am fond of a lot of people and try to make time to see them. Life seems to sweep by at such speed...."

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    1. Hometown:
      Paris, France, and San Francisco, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 28, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Moline, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Utah; M.A., Ph.D., UCLA, 1968

Read an Excerpt

1

If we do not find anything pleasant, at least we shall find something new.
-Voltaire

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, GeneviFve (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 "Maetre 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."

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Diane Johnson keeps getting better and better. Just three years after Le Divorce was published to critical acclaim, earning a National Book Award nomination, the bestselling author returned with Le Mariage, an intoxicating and clever new novel once again set against the backdrop of her beloved Paris. Over the course of her thirty-year writing career, Johnson has been steadily gaining a devoted readership. This guide discusses seven of her witty, stylish, and morally astute novels.

Though Johnson's novels run the gamut in geographical setting, protagonist, and even time period, they are unmistakably of a piece. Her critically acclaimed narrative style makes each scene unshakably real for us, and, more than just presenting a scene, she transmits the feelings and atmosphere of each situation to her readers. A skilled travel writer and essayist, Johnson excels at conveying the look and feel of exotic locations, be they Paris of Persia (Iran) or, perhaps most foreign of all to many Americans, California.

Burning, Johnson's earliest of this collection, is also perhaps the most unique. Unlike most of Johnson's effortlessly beautiful characters, Bingo Edwards is acknowledged by everyone, herself and her husband included, to be homely and middle-aged. Her faithful husband admires her for her intelligence though, and, of all the characters, Barney and Bingo feel the most compunction about committing adultery; yet even the Edwardses find themselves succumbing to the potent mixture of curiosity, boredom, and lust that seems to overcome all of Johnson's characters. In Health and Happiness, a senior professor of medicine with a beautiful, supportive wife is smitten by a comatose woman. In Persian Nights and The Shadow Knows, young wives, chafing under the burdens of homemaking responsibilities, turn to a colleague of their husbands for support and escape. In Lying Low, however, we do see a character who has successfully resistedt he bonds of love, a former dancer who is considerably older than she appears, whose perseverance has brought even fewer benefits than those earned by the rash actions of others. Le Divorce, Johnson's first novel set in France, follows a smart, sexy American abroad where, on a visit to her pregnant stepsister whose French husband has left her for another woman, she tries to keep her perspective as cultures and human passions collide.

From first to last, Diane Johnson illustrates that it is the woman who suffers love more deeply. From Magda, who comes close to losing her life, to N, who loses her home and almost her sanity, to Max, who loses her children, it is the woman who is cast out or beaten or ridiculed for the sake of love. Even when their actions verge on insanity, the male characters are protected and excused by society at large, and a little irresponsibility or callousness is not questioned. What continues to be Johnson's triumph is that she writes strong, resilient, resolute female characters who find hidden reserves of strength and determination just when they need it most, and who persevere in the face of danger, betrayal, loss, and adversity. And always, their stories are told in an engaging, witty, and utterly believable style.

Le Divorce

Le Divorce, a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction and a national bestseller, is Diane Johnson's delightfully witty account of the adventures of two sisters from California who make a modern pilgrimage to the City of Light. Isabel Walker, film school dropout, arrives in Paris to help her older step-sister Roxeanne during the final weeks of her second pregnancy. Isabel intends to use the trip to delay getting her life in gear and to pick up a little French culture, though she can't be bothered to learn the language. Arriving just as Roxy's perfect husband, Charles-Henri, walks out on her, Isabel quickly undergoes a crash course in the secret codes and intricacies of French social behavior.

Many critics were quick to find similarities and differences between Isabel Archer, heroine of Portrait of a Lady, and Isabel Walker, Johnson's heroine. While both women are ignorant of European social mores, Johnson makes it clear her Isabel is neither innocent nor easily taken advantage of. In contrast, Roxy, a part-time poet and full-time romantic, is the woman in need of guidance. Her French husband has fallen in love with another woman, a Czech sociologist named Magda who is also married to an American, and wants a divorce. Roxy's in-laws, the powerful and prestigious de Persand family, exert subtle but firm control over her decision whether or not to grant it. In favor of maintaining cordial relations for the sake of the grandchildren, the de Persands urge Roxy to reconsider. Impeccably courteous Madame de Persand, while exasperated at her son's foolishness, warns Roxy against making a mistake. "Why ruin your life and lose your social position?" Meanwhile, Isabel steps out of her role as mere observer of the de Persands and into a torrid affair with l'oncle Edgar, a prominent politician, who is married and over forty years her senior.

Complicating matters is the disposition of a family heirloom, a painting appreciated only by Roxy until it is discovered to be worth millions. In the midst of a variety of schemes, the stakes are suddenly raised by a crime of passion which disrupts everyone's motives and plans. Not since Edith Wharton penned her brilliant portraits of Americans abroad has an American novelist so perfectly captured the possibilities and perils of succumbing to the allure of Paris.

ABOUT DIANE JOHNSON

Diane Johnson's life has been at least as exciting as any of her heroines', filled with international travel and critical acclaim in whatever medium she deems worthy of her efforts. Born in 1934 in Moline, Illinois, Johnson's childhood was happy without being uneventful. Johnson's father, a high school principal, lost his job but not his honor when he exposed plagiarism committed by the daughter of the Superintendent of Schools. After high school, Diane attended Stephens, an academy for future airline stewardesses where teachers encouraged her to write, but left school in 1953 for a 'Los Angeles' marriage to a professor of medicine.

Twelve years later, Johnson terminated the union, having gained a Ph.D. in English from UCLA and "four wonderful children." Simultaneously, her first book, Fair Game, was published. Johnson's reputation continued to grow with the 1968 publication of Loving Hands at Home"my discontented wife novel, about a Mormon family." In 1970, Johnson penned the timely Burning, an incisive novel chronicling the experiences of a staid, conformist married couple thrown in amongst the hippies, drug-addicts, psychiatrists, and firemen of the Bel Air hills. Next, Johnson took a short sabbatical from novels to write the National Book Award-nominated Lesser Lives, a fascinating biography of Mary Ellen Meredith, wife of writer George Meredith, and a poet in her own right, though she often used her husband's name to get her works published. In 1973, Johnson's first short story, "An Apple, An Orange," was included in the annual O. Henry collection of Best Short Stories.

In 1974, The Shadow Knows was released, garnering major praise from all sides. Director Stanley Kubrick was so impressed by the novel's taut psychological suspense and depiction of a person dealing with irrational occurrences that he chose her to write the screenplay for his next horror blockbuster, "The Shining." In 1978, Lying Low was hailed as surpassingThe Shadow Knows, with its skillfully rendered atmosphere of foreboding and malice, and its violent and tragic denouement which managed to be surprising even though the events of the book led inexorably towards it. Also in 1978, Johnson spent three months in Iran with her second husband, Dr. John Murray, under a medical school exchange program. Taking another break from fiction, in 1982, Johnson gathered several literary portraits, reviews, and review essays in to Terrorists and Novelists, and in 1983 composed another biography, Dashiell Hammett: A Life, with the authorization and help of Lillian Hellman.

Johnson used her experiences in Iran as the basis for Persian Nights. Drawing comparisons to E.M. Forster's Passage to India, Johnson depicted, through the eyes of a typical American housewife, the collapse of Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi's regime. In 1988, based on the excellence of Persian Nights, as well as the rest of her body of work, Johnson was awarded "The Mildred and Harold Strauss Livings," which consists of a $50,000 yearly stipend to allow its recipients to devote their time exclusively to writing. In 1990, Johnson again used experiences relating to her husband's work in Health and Happiness. Set in San Francisco, Health and Happiness shows the inner workings of a large hospital complex from the differing viewpoints of MDs, RNs, employees, volunteers, and patients. 1993 brought the publication of Natural Opium: Some Travelers' Tales, a collection of short stories narrated by D., who is accompanied by her doctor husband, J., giving a sense that these tales are more than a little autobiographical.

In 1997, Le Divorce was published by Dutton and became a national best-seller and a National Book Award Finalist. She now divides her time between Paris and San Francisco, continuing to soak up culture and offer wry observations as a travel writer, essayist, and book reviewer for numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review. Interviewed byThe New York Times as a consummate example of an expatriate writer, Johnson stands by her purpose, "I'm still writing about Americans for Americans." Johnson's latest work, Le Mariage (now a Dutton hardcover), will be published by Plume in paperback in 2001.

Praise

"Delightful...what makes this book so much fun is the acerbic humor, fresh comical voice, and the acute observations...Masterful."Chicago Tribune

"Sexy, graceful, and funny " New York Review of Books

"A sparkly novel about the screwy collision of two cultures in the City of Light...Alluring." Boston Globe

"Delightful...This charming tale knows exactly what to say."Glamour

"Social commentary at its best."Los Angeles Times Book Review

AN INTERVIEW WITH DIANE JOHNSON

Le Mariage is your second novel set in France. In what ways, if any, was Le Divorce a jumping-off point for the later book? How have your experiences abroad during these last three years helped to shape Le Mariage?

In Le Divorce I began to sense what a rich subject cultural difference really isthough I had concerned myself with it before, in my stories and in my novel Persian Nights, set in Iran. In the last three years, since I've been living in France, my fascination has only grown. And I began to feel more comfortable writing from the point of view of a French character as I got to know the French better and to see the ways they are like and unlike Americans.

Le Mariage concludes with the wedding of Anne-Sophie and Tim; in fact, the entire novel builds to this moment. What are you trying to convey about the institution of marriage? From both European and American points of view?

When Anne-Sophie and Tim get married, they have been through some of the experiencesbeing attracted to others, realizing that the other person isn't necessarily interested in horses, say, or that there are things you might not wish to tell themthat mark the realization of being an individual, not just a unit in a couplesomething all married people have to learn if they are to be happily married, and something the French seem to know, and Americans tend to believe is the wrong way to feel. In America we are told we are now One, instead of being given permission by society to be Two, like friends.

During the course of the two novels, you move from divorce to marriage. Are you making a conscious comment here? Do you believe that endings can lead to fresh beginnings? If you book-ended these novels, how does one impact on or complete the other?

I certainly believe that endings can lead to fresh beginnings. I loved my divorce. If you bookended these novels, you could put either one in either position; they are meant as examinations of life and marriage, but not to comment on each other.

In Le Divorce, you have one heroine—Isabel Walker, an American; in Le Mariage you essentially have two: Anne-Sophie, a Frenchwoman, and Clara Holly, an American. Was this a conscious effort to depict the French culture in a more comprehensive and accessible way?

Yes, felt that I could now venture a French point of view, where before I felt I could only write as an American.

You employ a first-person narrative in Le Divorce; it is written entirely from Isabel's perspective. Whereas Le Mariagegives us varying third—person viewpoints (including a few male ones). Why did you choose this device and how did it enhance the story you wanted to tell?

There was simply no one character who could be everywhere I needed to go; also I had several stories to tell, and this method allowed me to tell Anne-Sophie's and Clara's both. And because those two stories also can be bookendeddo comment on each otherI couldn't choose between them.

Adultery plays a major role in both novels ( in fact, in several of your books). What are you telling us about marital relationships? Is there a fundamental difference between the European and the American attitude towards adultery?

There seems to be a fundamentally more realistic attitude in France that this common form of transgression occursin about the same proportion in both societiesbut we are more hypocritical and more upset. No one likes to be a cheated-on spouse, say, but where the American wife gets a divorce, a French wife gets a trip to the Seychelles or pearls.

At the end of Le Divorce Isabel asks: "Are Americans still Americans when they are transplanted, or do they become something else?" As an American who has lived abroad for several years and who is "still writing about Americans for Americans," how would you answer this? How might Le Mariage's Clara Holly, for example, "seen to acquire a certain amnesia about being American?"

I think Americans who continue living abroad certainly become something else, without ever losing the advantages of their American character. Of course there are "ugly Americans" but I would guess fewer than before, because now we are a nation of travellers, with a big diaspora. What Americans living abroad become is impatient with certain American defects that they can see more clearly from the perspective of being abroad, and less complacent about our country than, perhaps, people are who are at home not seeing the river for the trees. Travel broadens us, as James would have said, or maybe did. But there are also those who like Clara have lived in Europe a long time and become kind of mid-Atlantic, not really belonging either place. Tim is supposed to be like that too.

You once mentioned that Le Divorce was "a conscious attempt to resurrect the international novel" and you weren't "finished with it yet." In what ways does Le Mariage deepen and continue this effort?

It certainly is meant to continue with this rich subject. I believe that until Americans can see themselves as others see them, and can themselves understand other cultures, we will continue to blunder along, viewed as comic and menacing, in a world that needs us to be wise and good. And a novel can contribute in a tiny way to "international understanding," so since I'm fortunate enough to live abroad in a position to view two cultures at once, I'd like to do my part...

Did any particular person, scene, or idea serve as the inspiration for Le Divorce?

I heard a lot of stories from American women in Paris, about their divorces, or divorces they'd known about. My story is a sort of compendium, though none ended quite the way mine does.

Le Divorce possesses a comical voice, but also addresses serious issues. Many authors feel it is harder to write comedy than tragedy. Do you agree? What were the challenges of blending humor and drama?

Whether or not one is a comic writer is probably a matter of temperament and vision, and you probably don't have much choice which one you are. I do agree that the comic is a harder mode, because it can so easily descend into the jokey or slapstick or facetious, when really it must be serious. It is also harder to have the comic taken seriouslymany critics mistake melodrama for high seriousness, and the comic as "light."

You make wonderul use of Paris as a backdrop in Le Divorce. Which of the city's features stirred your novelist's instincts? Also, to what degree did you draw upon your own experience living in Paris?

The whole beauty of Paris, and its contrast with American cities, thrilled me very much. I drew completely on my experience of living herefor example my love for the bus and the metro, my realization that the car is a huge waste of time, the wonderful feeling of personal security that means women can come home alone late at night without concern, the rich texture of street life when people are out and about instead of locked in cars or suburban houses. The organ grinder is playing tunes under my window as I write this.

Reviewers of Le Divorce have compared you to expatriate writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. Have these authors been important in your own development as a writer? Were you inspired or influenced by any others?

I was certainly influenced by James, Wharton, and Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has especially been a writer I admire; and of course James, though I always find myself on the opposite moral side to James, and Wharton. In some ways, Le Divorce was meant to be a reverse Jamesian novel, in which the heroine is a little bit wildthe Americans are not innocent and naive. I was also influenced by Hemingway, though this may not be apparenta writer I revere, and a major writer of expatriate novels.

Your novels Persian Nights, The Shadow Knows, Lying Low—and now Le Divorceall feature witty female heroines and narrators. Are women better observers than men in your opinion? What factors influence your choice narrator/protagonist?

No, I imagine not, but they are easier for me to imagine observing, since I am one. Also, I think the female point of view is instrinsically subversive, thus suited to the comic vision. Literary observers must by definition be marginalized in some way, in sensibility if not in position. In position they have to be well-placed. So I try to choose someoneusually but not always a woman (in Health and Happiness, for example, there was a male protagonist) who is well situated to observe the action and with personal qualities to allow her to comment on it, and sometimes to experience it.

Do you think men read your books in a different way than do women?

I expect so, but I don't know. As a reader, I identify with the protagonists of either sex, but I don't know if male readers have this training, since they often aren't given, as children, books with female protagonists.

You have an impressively varied résumé as a writer: biographer, literary critic, travel writer, and novelist. How do these different disciplines blend in your work? Does the travel writer inspire the novelist and vice versa?

I think the different disciplines in which I write are all the same to mei.e. all aspects of my own sensibility or perceptions; thus I don't experience the different tasks as wildly different. Certainly my travels have inspired the settings for my books. And I often give characters in fiction the same ideas I might put into a book review or a critical article, the things that are on my mind.

Many of the chapters in Le Divorce open with aphorisms from great French writers. As an American novelist, do you look to European literature for certain qualities you find lacking in American literature? Was Le Divorce a conscious attempt to resurrect the "international" novel?

Not categorically, though of course, many of the books that have been most influential in my life have been Europeans or Englishthe 19th century English novels of Austen and Trollope and Meredith, then Russian novels, especially Tolstoywho doesn't start out loving novels with Anna Karenina? Kafka, Dumas, Constant. Le Divorce was a conscious attempt to resurrect the international novel, and I'm not finished with it yet!

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Clara Holly Cray is an Oregon-born former actress who has lived in France for more than a decade as the wife of a renowned if reclusive Polish film director. She "remembered her roots, would rather not, and almost never went back to the U.S." Yet she belongs "very much to the American world that exists like a specialized form in a complex ecosystem, dependent on its hosts but apart from them" (1). As the quintessential American in Paris, does this mean that Clara remains an outsider in both worlds, never completely belonging to either? Does she believe that she can never be truly accepted by the French, a point that is driven home when she is arrested by the French authorities for allegedly desecrating a national monument? How, if at all, do her feelings about the French change during the course of the novel? Does she become disillusioned with her adopted country?
     
  • Anne-Sophie is "the American community's ideal young Frenchwoman" (8). Yet she is engaged to Tim Nolinger, a part-American, part Belgian journalist, of whom her mother, the celebrated novelist Estelle d'Argel, does not wholly approve. How does Anne-Sophie reconcile her own ambitions and expectations of her future with those of Estelle, who clearly has a powerful influence on her daughter? In fact, it is from Estelle that Anne-Sophie "had two versions of maternal lore on how to lead life. On the one hand were the lessons of the real life Anne-Sophie saw being lived by her mother and father, her brother and herself; on the other was the general philosophy she found expressed in Estelle's works, which represented a reality at once more sophisticated, more cynical, and more exacting" (9). That Anne-Sophie has chosen to "pattern her behavior and beliefs on things her mother had written" reveals that, at heart, she believes more in an ideal of life than in what can turn out to be a disappointing everyday existence. Does she fear that marriage to Tim, "a man given to irony and no illusions" (6) will destroy her own illusions? Or that wedded life won't live up to them?
     
  • Clara knows she doesn't love her husband, at least "not in that swept-away, sexual way she tended to doubt really existed" (57). Yet she embarks on an adulterous affair with Antoine de Persand. Clearly, Clara does believe in love. Is she deceiving herself? Or trying to justify her choices in life? Serge Cray is given to fits of temper, stony silences and, at times, verbal abuse in front of others. Does Clara feel trapped in her marriage because of their deaf son, Lars? Does she remain in her rather passive existence because of guilt over being born beautiful and choosing the easy way outmarriage to an older, rich and famous man? Is her affair with de Persand revenge against her husband? Or an expression of true love?
     
  • When Clara is arrested for "desecrating a national monument," "the American community draws together, united in excited indignation" (144). Yet, in spite of this show of solidarity (in particular from the political front"Democrats in Paris and Republicans Abroad"), these foreigners on French soil cannot prevent Clara from being "dragged off by French authorities" (141). Would a Frenchwoman (or man) be treated in the same way? Does this reflect the French community's real feelings toward the Americans in their midst? Do Americans have (or believe they have) fewer rights in France than they would in their native country? Or is this simply the way of French justice, which cannot be speeded up, imbued as it is with the "French sense of time, stately and historical, and the French certainty that events will unfold in their preordained way?" (145).
     
  • Johnson's novels often mask a deeper moral complexity. In Le Mariage, how do the Americans differ from their French counterparts in their perceptions of and attitudes toward, morality, i.e., adultery, and crime, i.e., theft, wrongful arrest, murder? Are they more judgmental? Upright? Outraged? Less tolerant and blasé'?
     
  • When Anne-Sophie accompanies Tim and some of the others to Oregon, it is her first time in America. What does she come away from the trip with? Does it change her or her beliefs about America in any fundamental way?
     
  • Delia Sadler, an antiques dealer in Paris, tells Clara, a fellow Oregonian, "I would say you're disgusting if it wasn't rude to say itdisgusting in the sense of rolling in luxury and giving nothing back" (242). She goes on to say that "no one here knows anything about America, and the Americans who live here are the worst, they forget what it's like at home where people are hungry and angry, and the whole country is shifting like a big mountain with some sort of geologic activity pushing up from inside it, it's just going to split open like a big baked potato. No other American I've met here can imagine it, and no French person can imagine it, no way" (241). Delia seems to be saying that both cultures have little regard for human suffering. Is she making a statement about all people and all cultures? What does she say about Americans in America? Clara thinks she's right, even though it gives the lie to the privileged life she's been leading in France. Is the author making a statement about the human condition in general, that cruelty and suffering will always exist, try as we might to prettify our lives with the superficial trappings of wealth and position?
     
  • Le Mariage concludes with the wedding of Anne-Sophie and Tim. Do they seem excited? Resigned? Do the other protagonists, i.e., Clara, find some measure of contentment and/or acceptance in the end?
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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 23 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2003

    Absolument horrible!!!

    I can't believe how much I disliked this book. I was prepared to like it, since I'm a huge Francophile, but this was just terrible. Isabel, the narrator, was completely unsympathetic. I couldn't care about her, and the only emotion that she evoked from me was derision. Her level of intelligence was not at all consistent, and I have a hard time believing that a person who had gotten into as many scrapes as Isabel had in her lifetime would continue to be so relentlessly naive. I couldn't understand anyone's motivation, and pretty much all of the characters seemed rather dull to me. I would recommend this book only if you are determined to punish yourself or somebody else for some large sin and need the proper vehicle for penance. Otherwise, avoid this book at all costs.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2003

    Eye catching, but not worth your time

    The novel is interesting with respect to Paris and plot ideas, however, it is a very slow read. Without doubt, Diane Johnson is a great writer but the story could have been told in half the time.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 21, 2010

    A Paris jaunt

    I think you have to have lived in Paris to really understand this entertaining book. It's very well written and really captures the inimitable residents. A very good story line that is full of surprises and liasons. I'm anxious to read more of her books. Well deserved award.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2004

    i thought it was great

    i read it a year ago and when i saw so many negative reviews i had to say something. reading it made me want to go to paris and be that american in paris just trying to blend in. the affair i thought was beautiful and realistic. i dont know how anyone could have found it confusing or horrible or whatever because i thought it completely made the book as wonderful as i thought it was. it was sexy and timid and unsure and just real. all the dillemas between the french and american controversies i thought were really interesting. love in paris. how could anyone say no?

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2003

    Disappointing

    I picked this book up thinking that it sounded interesting. I found it, however, to be ridiculously slow, the entire book was about a completely wishy washy woman who just needs to make up her mind! Also slightly offensive to me. Don't waste your time.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2003

    Deplorable Book

    This was a boring, simply awful book. The characters were the most despicable, amoral, hideous people ever grouped together in one book. Not one was remotely likeable. And the ending! Where was the sense to that? To illustrate how gun crazy and violent Americans are? I wish, desparately, that I had never seen this book much less read it.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2005

    Boring

    I thought this was going to be a great book. I was wrong. It was so slow and the characters were all awful. I barely finished the book. About halfway through I just started skimming pages to see how the book ended. A waste of my time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2004

    disappointed beyond belief

    I picked up this book thinking that if it had been made into a movie then it had to be good. I couldn't stand the thing. The characters seemed selfish and naive. Isabel's affair disgusted me beyond words. I was constantly going back to paragraphs trying to figure out what they said. I'll never recommend this book or this author.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2003

    A wise and witty peek at Paris and zee French

    Diane Johnson's espertise with the French Culture has been lightly and brightly brought to us on a Baccarat crystal platter. One can view all sides at once. The book is enjoyable if you have never been to France, but if you have, it is 'Tres Bon.' Her contrasts and interplay within the American and French cultures is both insightful and charming. It is easy to be delighted by the French, Diane makes it possible to also be enchanted and enlightened.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2003

    I actually loved it...

    I really thought this book had a lot to offer, despite what everyone else said. The writing was amzing, the depiction of the social contrast was well said, and the character portrayal was very well done. There were a lot of long descriptions, but they were totally worth it. You have to really appreciate french culture to enjoy this book, and most americans don't, so I guess that's why it didnt do so well. I myself had to read it a few times before I fully enjoyed it. But I thought it was a good read, and it does help a lot to know french when you read this book, otherwise you're just wasting your time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2003

    Highly disappointed

    I was eager to get this book hoping that the plot line set in Paris would be a fun escape. I was hoping to get a bit of the French atmosphere and have a fun read. While I found the writing to be a bit tedious at times, some parts were okay but overall I never felt involved with any of the characters. And the ending was a major disappointment. It made no sense and seemed to me that the author knew that this was going to be a movie and so threw some wild Hollywood ending in there. Don't bother. If you want something fun, read one of Jane Green's books.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2003

    DON'T BOTHER!!

    Slow, tedious, too many French words without the translation, and NOT FUNNY!!

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2003

    Interesting, but slow

    What attracted me to this book was the fact that I have had 5 years of French class. For that reason it was enjoyable to read, and notice all the subtle and not subtle references between the different cultures. I liked the book, but was hoping it would have more charcter development. Worth reading, but not something many people will read more than once.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2003

    WAS IT WORTH READING?

    I was looking forward to enjoying this book when I saw a teaser for the upcoming Kate Hudson movie. The book doesn't let you get very close to the characters and then proceeds to drag in the middle. I found the whole American in Paris idea interesting but with more character development the plot wouldn't seem to be so rushed at the end to wrap up the family and financial crisis. I felt let down when I could have skipped the middle 100 pages and just read the last 50 to see how everything ended up.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2014

    Two-leg place

    Town hall. Mayor is Ms. Brownduk.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2014

    Boring

    This is my first one star review book boring and had to skim through all the pages to get thru this LONG book. And there was no end. Dont know if its a nook thing but there was no end.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 3, 2014

    can you read French

    This book has a lot of French and big words you have to look up. It rambles on sometimes. It eventually has a good plot. If you can tolerate waiting it gives you a good idea what it would be like for a young American living in Paris.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2014

    Great book!

    Unique writing! I loved this book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2013

    Samantha (Sam)

    Walks in scared not knowing what to do

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2004

    Not worth the read

    I am going to sound like a borken record but I thought this book was going to be wonderful! But I had a hard time even getting past page 100 because I found it boring. I didn't like the Characters and I am very dissapointed that I didn't enjoy the book as much as I thought I would.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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