Le Divorce

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Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

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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: 9780452284487
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 7/1/2003
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.42 (w) x 8.07 (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

Our Book Club Recommendation
Diane Johnson's Le Divorce is a modern novel that so effectively seduces its readers through the author's charming, effortless storytelling that its complex side is almost easy to miss. Through her surprisingly wise young narrator, she offers a complex take on modern love, cultural differences, and the battle of the sexes. Book clubs will find the sheer pleasure of Johnson's elegant comedy perfectly matched by the thoughtfulness with which Le Divorce handles the issues that lie below its sparkling surface.

The plot of the book revolves around an almost ordinary set of events: Young Isabel leaves California to stay with her stepsister Roxy in Paris, helping Roxy with her little daughter while she prepares to give birth to a second child. When Roxy's French husband suddenly leaves her for another woman, divorce looms, and questions of propriety and property become as crucial as Roxy's broken heart. When a family heirloom becomes part of the struggle, Isabel finds herself involved in something much more tangled than a romantic breakup -- and when she gets involved with an unlikely suitor, questions of trust and betrayal present themselves ominously.

Johnson turns this Franco-American family squabble into a vehicle for musings about cultural prejudice (from both sides) and for a hard look at our assumptions about sex, money, class, and marriage. Isabel's frequent reflections about French mores, and her own very American responses to them, are perfectly geared to produce controversy among readers who may or may not agree with her.

In the end, Isabel's story incorporates both tragedy and comedy, and her trials and triumphs in France have not merely been an amusing experience but truly an education for us and for her. Book clubs will find that Le Divorce may lead to other reading, perhaps of other writers who have explored the divide between these two nations -- from Henry James to Janet Flanner. Johnson's tale takes its place in a grand tradition of stories in which Americans find, in Paris, something beguiling and challenging that cultivates a new way of thinking about ourselves. (Bill Tipper)

From the Publisher

INTRODUCTION
1997 was truly a banner year for Diane Johnson. Le Divorce, her first novel since 1990's Health and Happiness, quickly gained acclaim and climbed national bestseller lists, culminating in a nomination for the National Book Award for fiction. Throughout her varied writing career, Johnson's reputation has grown; this guide covers six of her fascinating novels penned over the course of twenty-seven years.

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 or Persia (Iran) or, perhaps most foreign of all to many Americans, California.

ABOUT THE TITLES

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 Edwards find themselves succumbing to the potent mixture of curiosity, boredom, and lust that seems to overcome all 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 resisted the 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.

From first to last, Diane Johnson illustrates that it is the woman who suffers love more deeply. From Magda, who loses 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 reservoirs of strength and determination just when they need it most, who persevere in the face of menace, mockery, and dismissal, and that she manages to tell their tales in an engaging, witty, and totally believable style.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 surpassing The 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 splits 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 by The 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.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW
A conversation with Diane Johnson

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

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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 seriously-many critics mistake melodrama for high seriousness, and the comic as "light."

Q: 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?

A: The whole beauty of Paris, and its contrast with American cities, thrilled me very much. I drew completely on my experience of living here-for 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 thisŠ

Q: 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?

A: 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 wild-the Americans are not innocent and naive. I was also influenced by Hemingway, though this may not be apparent-a writer I revere, and a major writer of expatriate novels.

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

A: 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 someone-usually 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.

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

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: I think the different disciplines in which I write are all the same to me-i.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.

Q: 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?

A:Not categorically, though of course, many of the books that have been most influential in my life have been Europeans or English-the 19th century English novels of Austen and Trollope and Meredith, then Russian novels, especially Tolstoy-who 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!

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

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. The relationship between Roxeanne and Isabel has hidden depths but is defined by contradictions. Both the Persands and the Walkers never cease to comment on how different they are-Roxeanne is the Francaise, Isabel the American; Roxeanne is emotional, Isabel has common sense; Roxeanne is a poet, Isabel has no ambitions; Roxeanne is the smart one, Isabel is the pretty one. Do some roles reverse over the course of the novel? How does the stereotyping effect the girls' own self images?
  2. On the day her parents arrive, Isabel is suddenly able to understand the French conversations around her. "It was like the moment in some magic tale, when you find the ring, or swallow the potion, and you can suddenly understand what the birds are saying"(200). Is that an accurate representation of what happens when one travels abroad? Have you ever 'picked up the language' after being in a country a few months? What is the larger significance of this event and the point at which it occurs?
  3. L'oncle Edgar is fifty years older than Isabel. He is attracted by her good looks, youth, and mutable character; she is attracted by his stately bearing, knowledge, and experience. Edgar Cosset takes Isabel to France's finest restaurants and cultural events and teaches her more about the art of love than she thought there was to know. In exchange, Isabel gives him her adoration and tries to improve herself in his name. Who suffers as a result of this affair? (Suzanne de Persand worries Isabel will be heart-broken, while the Walkers are sure Edgar has been taken advantage of-is either opinion correct?) To what extent is Isabel's self-image damaged and/or formed by this relationship?
  4. Roxy felt a kind of kinship to St. Ursula, converted to Catholicism after marriage, and, in her time of greatest need and bewilderment, prayed a novena with no specific wish in mind which she later credited with causing Charles-Henri's death. In California, Isabel explains, "someone who talks about God automatically comes across as a hypocrite"(191), and it seems to be the adulterers who are firmest in their beliefs (references are made to both Magda and Edgar's strong faiths). What role do church and religious beliefs play in Le Divorce?
  5. Martial conflict is an important theme. L'oncle Edgar's time is consumed by "useless preaching" about the Bosnian conflict, while Mrs. Pace marvels at how strong feelings about draft-dodgers and peace demonstrations are years after the war is over. Roxy equates her own situation to the poor women and children under siege, and ends up a literal hostage at the book's climax. Does the background concern for war-torn lands simply contribute to the setting, or does it lend an ominous undertone of violence to the events in Paris? What other "wars" are being waged?
  6. Consider the American community in Paris. Some come for love, others for business, some are escaping political persecution, or even the AIDS epidemic. Besides being strangers in a strange land, what binds them together? Are any truly accepted by the French? Do most, like Roxy, have bewildered friends and family wondering in what aspect America failed to measure up, and wishing they would come home?
  7. Doug Tellman seems like a minor character, yet it is his actions that affect the other characters most. Americans are supposed to be rational, yet as an enraged husband he kills the adulterer. He seems always drunk or menacing and wants to pimp Isabel to foreign businessman, yet after he is arrested the American community rallies to support him. Is Tellman what they claim-a fragile, disturbed person driven to distraction and misunderstood by the French? Is he being treated harshly or differently than a native would be?
  8. Johnson's protagonists seem consistently more concerned with what feels good to them than with what society or law tells them to do. If they feel love, they act on that impulse, and normally have to face dire consequences. Much of what happens to them is inevitable, and events seem to occur despite their best efforts at prevention-are they ever able to gain control or to learn to relinquish it? Are they wise to eschew compromise and search for their true selves? In the end, do they find happiness and closure?

Related Titles (About the Books)

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.

Burning

Bel Air is a wealthy community nestled in the hills outside of Los Angeles. Here, among the pastel stucco houses and palm trees, Bingo Edwards, the wife of an orthopedic surgeon, lives a sheltered and eccentric life raising chickens, box turtles, and two children. The Edwards' harmonious existence is disrupted when the local fire department forces them to remove the hazardous backyard privacy hedge which has protected her from the outside world. Uprooting the hedge exposes Bingo all too well to her neighbors, an unconventional Beverly Hills psychiatrist and his eccentric patients. Venturing into the company of these strangers, particularly a primitively ugly but strangely alluring patient and a distractingly handsome fireman neither of whom pause at the thought of nudity or casual sex, Bingo and Barney feel their last vestiges of normalcy slipping away. As the situation heats up for everyone, an enormous fire threatens to consume Bel Air, putting its own twist on the radical alteration of Bingo's way of life.

Health and Happiness

Ivy Tarro, a young, single mother, awakens one day with an oddly swollen arm‹a minor problem that should have her home from the hospital by dinnertime. Instead, she finds herself detained and hospitalized, her life suddenly at risk. A near fatal misdiagnosis, over-medication, and neglect leave Ivy a victim of modern medicine. A swirl of galvanized doctors surrounds her‹interns, specialists, virtuosos, incompetents, prima donnas, saints, the head nurse who knows her patients' vital signs and her colleague's love affairs, and the brilliant senior professor of medicine who falls dangerously in love with her. As these lives intermingle, Ivy's potentially fatal condition sends shock waves through the hospital community, stirring up currents of fear, courage, ambition, rivalry, doctor hate, and doctor love. Health and Happinesscaptures the endless moral dilemmas and life-and-death decisions that are the foundation of hospital life, portraying the continuous clashes of motive and sensibility that create the ongoing comedy of medical manners.

Lying Low

A National Book Award finalist, this novel relates the events of four crucial days in the lives of four people sharing a rambling Victorian house, "lying low," and harboring secrets not meant to be shared. Theo Wait, a middle-aged former ballet dancer, and her brother, Anton, have taken in two boarders: beautiful Marybeth, who goes by the name of Lynn, who never receives mail or visitors, and in whom many readers saw Patty Hearst; and energetic and effusive Ouida, a Brazilian student and illegal alien who won't let complicated bureaucratic wrangles and constant fear of deportation taint her vision of America as the land of opportunity. A faked identity, a search for one of the FBI's most wanted escaped prison convicts, and a Brazilian feast that spins out of control kick the plot into high gear. While each of these characters has been plagued by a sense of impending disaster, the terrible thing they've all been fearing comes from an entirely unexpected direction, shattering all of their lives.

Persian Nights

With Persian Nights, Diane Johnson delivered an entertaining novel of an appealing woman caught up in a mysterious world of challenge and intrigue. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, this novel portrays a charming heroine who is pronouncedly unliberated. Disamingly delicate and pretty, and not averse to putting either attribute to its best use, Chloe Johnson is young, married, and satisfied with her normal American role as a doctor's wife and mother of two. On the eve of her first trip to Iran, Chloe's husband is summoned back to his clinic and urges her to travel on without him. Yet in a place where her ordinary notions of reason and reality run headlong into a wall of intrigue, Chloe is liberated from everything she has ever known and every idea she has about herself is put to the test. Much to her surprise, she finds herself drawn to the life she encounters in Iran; intoxicated by each exotic sight which reminds her how far from home she really is; both comforted and unsettled by the group of foreign and Iranian physicians and their wives who take her in. However, her exhilaration crashes when her rooms are searched, and odd, often frightening events begin to occur, exposing the darker side of this "colonial life." Persian Nights follows Chloe on a voyage through the seductively inexplicable, and has all the qualities one expects from Johnson‹the quirky, vivid atmosphere; the intelligent, humane voice; and the compelling narrative.

The Shadow Knows

The anonymous heroine, N, is considerably more liberated than Chloe or Isabel, but this does not give her more freedom. N is a young woman who has broken free of a constricting marriage, but is caught in an almost obsessive affair with a married man, and is struggling to raise four children in a housing project aided only by Ev, an endearing housekeeper who unfortunately seems to need as much care and protection as the children. Coming home on New Year's Eve, N finds her door hacked with an ax and smeared with what appears to be a mixture of blood and crankcase oil. A few days later a strangled cat is left outside her apartment door. She is plagued daily by mysterious, disturbing phone calls. Examining her life in an attempt to figure out who her enemy may be, N's real fears merge with paranoid fantasy in this fascinating story which rivals Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic portrayal of a sane woman driven to madness, The Yellow Wallpaper.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 22 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 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 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2003

    Don't Bother

    I too thought it would be enjoyable to read the book before it reached the theaters. The story line had no rising climax, and the plot seemed to jump around. As the reader, I never could tell what the main focus was. Furthermore, there was so much French in the story line and dialouge that at times it was hard to really grasp what was actually being said. Don't pick up this book unless you've had a crash course in French I, or a French to English dictionary close at hand.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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