Le Mariage

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Overview

From the author of the acclaimed bestseller and 1997 National Book Award finalist, Le Divorce, comes a sparkling comedy of manners once again set in the world of Americans in Paris.

Anne-Sophie is a young Frenchwoman engaged to Tim Nolinger, an American journalist hot on the trail of a breaking story: The theft of a valuable illuminated manuscript from a private collection in New York, which may now be in the possession of a reclusive film director living on the outskirts of ...

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Le Mariage

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Overview

From the author of the acclaimed bestseller and 1997 National Book Award finalist, Le Divorce, comes a sparkling comedy of manners once again set in the world of Americans in Paris.

Anne-Sophie is a young Frenchwoman engaged to Tim Nolinger, an American journalist hot on the trail of a breaking story: The theft of a valuable illuminated manuscript from a private collection in New York, which may now be in the possession of a reclusive film director living on the outskirts of Paris. As Tim, Anne-Sophie, a pair of American antique dealers, and one amorous member of the local gentry converge on the director's chateau, the director's wife—a former actress—is accused of desecrating a national monument. Add to that a disappearing American; a hunting contretemps; a wrongful arrest; and murder, and you have this sexy, stylish, delight of a novel that celebrates the paradoxes of marriage and morality as they are perceived on both sides of the Atlantic. Filled with the author's pithy insights and hilarious asides, Le Mariage is Diane Johnson at her very best.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Marriage Admits Impediments

The great European novelists of the 19th century often took marriage as their topic. For Tolstoy, marriage was a lonely affair; for Flaubert, a tragic one. In America, it was a different case. Readers would be hard-pressed to find more than a casual reference to marriage in Melville. The 20th century, in turn, produced very few great novels of marriage on either continent, so concerned with the individual were that period's novelists. Yet if Diane Johnson's excellent new novel, Le Mariage, is any indication, church bells will be ringing loudly again in the 21st century.

It is appropriate that Johnson should be the one to return to the hallowed state of matrimony. An American who divides her time between San Francisco and Paris, she writes with the sweep and understanding of a modern Tolstoy, skillfully penetrating into the minds of each and every one of her characters. But Johnson's sense of humor is distinctly American: Her characters suffer from comedic bouts of self-consciousness; her plot never misses a chance to delve into the bizarre, even ludicrous elements of the modern world.

And Johnson is no stranger to the material. Her previous novel, Le Divorce, a modern comedy of manners that centers on the breakup of a Franco-American union, was a 1997 National Book Award finalist. This ground—Paris, the clashing of old and new cultures, and the vicissitudes of married life—belongs to Diane Johnson.

Le Mariage is essentially the story of the events leading up to the marriage of Tim Nolinger, an American journalist living in Paris, and Anne-Sophie d'Argel, a beautiful young French woman who sells equestrian art at the flea market. Nolinger is the quintessential dispassionate American: He is a contributor to two American magazines, Reliance, a conservative journal, and Concern, a liberal one. When asked how he manages the contradiction, Tim simply shrugs, "I can see both sides" (though he uses only his initials, TAN, in articles for the liberals). Anne-Sophie, on the other hand, is a picture of Frenchness.

As the novel begins, Tim has been tipped off to a case involving a medieval manuscript stolen from the Morgan Library in New York, somehow linked to a mysterious murder that takes place in the first few pages. The case leads him to make the acquaintance of Serge Cray, a famous American film director living in seclusion outside of Paris, and Cray's beautiful wife, Clara Holly, an actress from Oregon. The Crays' marriage is in the last stages of decline. Their passion for each other, such as it may have been, has cooled, and Anne-Sophie and Tim look on them with fear and anxiety, thinking and rethinking their own imminent nuptuals.

The sequence of couples is complete when Delia and Gabriel, vacationing Oregonians who are somehow mixed up in the stolen manuscript/murder case, arrive. Gabriel disappears, and Delia, who walks with a limp, joins up with the two married couples, lending the lethargic air of an immovable tourist to their increasingly chaotic affairs. The Crays get drawn into an internationally publicized hunting controversy; Clara Holly falls in love with her neighbor; Serge Cray becomes obsessed with Delia's ties to the Y2K secessionist movement in Oregon, about which he plans to make a film; Tim and Anne-Sophie struggle to find an apartment; and Gabriel is arrested. Meanwhile, the wedding date is fast approaching. (Le Mariage is welcome comic relief for frantic wedding planners: Nothing could be more stressful than this one.)

Johnson negotiates her complex plot with mastery. There are no dead subplots in the novel. With the grace of a Tolstoy, she tends to each of her character's inner lives. We are privy to Serge Cray's artistic turmoil, Clara Holly's desperation for her lost youth, Tim's pragmatic self-haranguing dread, Anne-Sophie's linguistic concerns (which lead her to read Henry Miller, hunting for words like "horny" and "fuck"), and Delia's innocent self-righteousness. Johnson writes with what can only be called, considering her subject matter, joie de vivre—she clearly loves Paris and all the people and situations it contains.

Perhaps this is what lends her novel its 19th-century qualities; like Tolstoy and Flaubert, Johnson has the broad mind of a writer who loves and is interested in all classes of people. Like Tim, she can see both sides of every situation and doesn't balk at portraying them all.

Johnson also has a great feel for the contemporary French milieu, particularly for the Americans who live in France—princesses from Cincinnati, rich expatriates, art collectors—all of whom are trying to live like the French yet secretly believe themselves superior to them. Johnson writes with a knowledge of these situations that can only be firsthand, yet readers who have never crossed the Atlantic will know immediately how to regard them. Like others in the long tradition of American expatriate writers in Paris, Johnson has used her dual allegiance to escape the pitfalls of both cultures and produce a book that portrays each one with severity, perception, and humor.

J.P. Silverstein

J. P. Silverstein lives in Marfa, Texas.


About the Author

Diane Johnson is the author of the bestselling novel Le Divorce, a 1997 National Book Award finalist, as well as 11 other books. She divides her time between San Francisco and Paris.

From the Publisher
"Splendid entertainment... Johnson is one of our most astute cultural critics." —The New York Times Book Review

"A comic novel in the classic manner, with smart style, piquant suspense, and dog-earingly epigrammatic prose." —San Francisco Chronicle

"A witty romp." —Elle

"Johnson whips love and marriage into a frothy souffle...delicious." —Entertainment Weekly

"Like Jane Austen, Johnson delights in the worldly rituals surrounding courtship and marriage...she is a philosopher as much as a novelist."—The New Yorker

"Rich, nuanced, and highly satisfying." —Glamour

New Yorker
In the end, it's Johnson's insights that account for the charm of these books ... Her novels, of course, retained the characteristic mixture of earthly sensuality and astute judgments about human nature that had made her reputation."—April 10, 2000
New York Post
At her best - and 'Le Mariage' is certainly that - Johnson's juggles a cleaver plot and complex characters with both wit and soul."—April 2, 2000
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Even more knowing and perceptive than Le Divorce, Johnson's second novel about American expatriates in France is another wickedly clever comedy of manners. Her amused irony infuses this story of two romantic relationships. Good-natured Tim Nolinger, an easygoing journalist of mixed American and Belgian ancestry, is engaged to adorable Anne-Sophie d'Arget, who runs a boutique selling equestrian memorabilia in the Paris flea market. When Tim pursues a story about a stolen medieval manuscript called the Driad Apocalypse, their lives intersect with those of a former American film star, Clara Holly, and her husband, famous and reclusive director Serge Cray, who live in a ch teau in the suburbs of Paris. Peripheral characters include Anne-Sophie's mother, a cynical Parisienne novelist whose romance novels contain platitudinous advice about love that her daughter takes seriously; various members of the American community in Paris; the villagers of Etang-la-reine, who resent the rich property owners from the States and whose anger about the loss of their hunting rights triggers a plot against the Crays; two visitors from Clara's hometown in Oregon, and the members of a millennium cult there, who are pivotal in the drama of the purloined papers. What will be even more satisfying to Johnson's fans is the appearance of a character from Le Divorce, the dashing Antoine de Persand. In six degrees of separation, everybody is connected, yet the coincidences are artfully managed. Johnson's crisp manipulation of the engagingly convoluted plot is rooted in her central theme of French misconceptions about Americans, and vice versa. As exemplified by Holly and Cray, even those who share the same culture habitually fail to estimate the other accurately. Johnson's barbs are sophisticated and sharp, her amused irony is easily maintained, and her finesse at narrative is as fine tuned as her cultural sensitivity and her instincts about human behavior. As the novel ends, it is not surprising that le mariage of Anne-Sophie and Tim seems doomed by misunderstandings, but an adulterous liaison between two other characters conveys the mesmerizing passion of true love. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Like Henry James and Edith Wharton, Johnson's most recent novels Persian Nights, Le Divorce have explored the cultural misunderstandings between the sophisticated Old World Iran, France and the brash yet na ve New World America--but without the tortuous Jamesian prose and with a contemporary satirical wit. Her latest, Le Mariage, is a delightful companion, rather than a sequel, to the National Book Award-nominated Le Divorce. Set again in Paris with a few overlapping characters, the plot revolves around two couples--Tim Nolinger, an Belgian American journalist engaged to the very French Anne-Sophie, a dealer in equine collectibles; and the very beautiful American Clara, a former actress married to the reclusive film director Serge Clay. Thrown into the entertaining mix is a stolen illuminated manuscript, a murdered flea market dealer, Y2K cults, an adulterous liaison, and of course Johnson's perceptive and witty insights on love, marriage, and Anglo-French relations. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/99.]--Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Angeline Goreau
Johnson, one of our most astute cultural critics, is conveying a message about the anything-goes dishevelment of modern life . . . A splendid entertainment, decorated with speculations of a redeeming nature.
The New York Times Book Review
Hawthorne
Like Jane Austen, Johnson delights in the worldly rituals surrounding courtship and marriage, but she is just as interested in the far-reaching legal consequences of marital unions and disunions, and in what laws can reveal about the cultures they are enlisted to defend.
&151;The New Yorker
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452282261
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,003,557
  • Product dimensions: 5.44 (w) x 7.94 (h) x 0.71 (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

Chapter 3: Anne-Sophie
The agreeable Tim Nolinger was the future son-in-law of the well-known French novelist Estelle d'Argel (Les Fruits; Doric, Ionian; Plusieurs Fois), engaged to her daughter Anne-Sophie. What a misfit the two of them, Estelle and Anne-Sophie. Her daughter's fiancé did not quite please the worldly and practical Estelle, who had greater ambitions for Anne-Sophie, had hoped for a count or a promising politician, or a future Academician, or at the least a sports figure-if from a respectable sport like tennis. Or at least someone French. Tim did play tennis, of course, but only as a form of recreation.
Anne-Sophie, a concern to her mother, was the American community's ideal young Frenchwoman, trim, confident, flirtatious, cheerful, enterprising, with her little shop. After attending Sciences-Po, she might have assisted a government minister or become an attaché de presse at a publishing house, but drifted instead into dealing in horsey artifacts, a hobby since girlhood. Anne-Sophie's stand, Cheval-Art, formerly belonged to a Monsieur Lavalle who, as he aged, spent less and less time there and over the years had pretty much turned the business over to Anne-Sophie, especially the bookkeeping and the buying; he would come in occasionally on Monday afternoons to take a turn at the stand. Their association had begun when she was still at school, and hung about, little by little betraying a knowledge, remarkable in a jeune fille, of Niderviller horse figurines and antique tack. At first her mother had mistrusted Monsieur Lavalle's intentions regarding Anne-Sophie, but she needn't have, for Lavalle was altogether gay.
Anne-Sophie, at home in her small apartment on the rue Saint-Dominique, was preparing to bathe. Rosy and compact, her breasts the little pink-tipped breasts of a Boucher nymph, she brought to mind a particular picture in the Musée du Luxembourg. Nipples just peeking out of the suds. Perhaps a polished toe surfacing at the faucet end. Anne-Sophie lined up the stuff she used for her elaborate baths: bath oil, soap, shampoo, rinse, crème de gommage, razor, pumice.
But tonight she felt too devastated, and at the same time excited, to unscrew the tops and embark on the long, absorbing ritual which might lull her mind into a sense of the ordinary after the shocking events of the day. These she wanted to keep a keen memory of, for Tim, when she met him at the princess's party. His journalist instincts would prompt questions she wanted to be able to answer. She had noticed everything, she thought, in case Tim should ask something specific, like "What was the guy wearing?" Gray shirt, blue knitted gilet, blue knitted tie soaked in blood! When it came to Tim Nolinger, Anne-Sophie had a Frenchwoman's sense of vocation-but she was also an expert in hunting prints and a very good businesswoman.
Anne-Sophie had from her novelist mother Estelle 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. For instance, the comtesse Ribemont in Against the Tide says, "Never make a man feel guilty," whereas at home, her mother had often ignored the countess's principles by snapping at her husband, "You might have called, I've been frantic," or "Where have you been?"
Of the two, Anne-Sophie had concluded that the countess was probably right. There had been nothing really wrong between her parents, just a certain detachment Anne-Sophie found disappointing. Daily life could be led more beautifully, more passionately; Anne-Sophie had therefore patterned her behavior and beliefs on things her mother had written. "Pay attention to the petits soins," Madame Godchaud, the worldly grandmother in Plusieurs Fois by Estelle d'Argel, tells her granddaughter who is about to be married. The little details of grooming. That meant obsessive depilation and having dainty lingerie. So Anne-Sophie was careful of the petits soins both by nature and by the study of her mother's works, whereas in life Estelle had never mentioned such things, beyond the usual admonitions about clean underwear.
Patterning yourself after books can make you seem rather literal-minded, unable to figure things out for yourself, so Anne-Sophie was taken by some people to be too literal-minded. And someone interested in horses, in the common mind, was bound to be earthy and simple-a girl cannot be both horsey and flighty. So Anne- Sophie was misunderstood as a sensible outdoorsy girl, when in fact she also had a yearning for luxe and frivolity.
She clamped her mirror between her knees to keep it out of the suds and worked on her eyebrows, but her mind wasn't on them. She was thinking of the gruesome sight she had seen that day in the flea market.
The reception was at the undeniably grand rooms of an elderly American, the princess Dorothy Minor Sternholz, married to Blaise. Sternholz was not a French prince, of course, but something more easterly, perhaps Lithuanian or Czech, his a flimsy, distant title more imposed on him than claimed. (The French love titles, their revolutions notwithstanding. For that matter, Americans do too.) Blaise Sternholz the prince, the publisher of a sporting newspaper and a member of the International Olympic Committee, had been raised in the Sixteenth Arrondissement and had never been to Lithuania. Dorothy was a permanent fixture among Americans in the City of Light, and had notable art works acquired during a period before her marriage when, on the evidence of a number of paintings she posed for, she appears to have known quite a few French artists quite well.
The American community in Paris was something of a world unto itself. Americans there had their charities, their futile long-distance involvement in American politics, their periodic attempts to disseminate American wisdom, thought, and literature to France as in the days of Tom Paine, their English-language cooking classes, their music, their American Church and American Cathedral, their knot of French friends, their effusive celebrations of the slightly has-been American celebrities who turned up here, their embassy presided over by someone amusing sometimes-the new ambassador being viewed warily after the radiant hospitality of the last one-and the special store where they could buy their peanut butter and popcorn. Perhaps there were no natural contradictions between the French landscape and the Americans who inhabited it so diffidently, but it often seemed that Americans would do well to stay out of what they did not understand. Or was it they who brought the harm?
Arriving at Dorothy's party before Tim, Anne-Sophie embraced the Americans of her parents' age assembled there. Everyone kissed her in the French fashion. Especially intent kisses from Olivia Pace's elderly husband, the rich Robert Pace, did not escape her, nor his squeeze of her hand; he was what the French call a vieux beau. Dorothy crossed to give her the usual two kisses. The princess's affection for Anne-Sophie stemmed in part from fellow feeling. Whereas Anne-Sophie's real mother was so unlike Anne-Sophie that she had never understood her, Dorothy did. Anne-Sophie's interest in horses put her in mind of her own interest in sports, and she often remembered the sense of unfeminine deviance and marginality that went with it, though Anne-Sophie was French femininity itself. Dorothy prided herself on being a great expert on French attitudes and culture, knowledge largely gleaned from her husband, whom she had met as a member of the U.S. Olympic rifle team forty years before.
Anne-Sophie raised her delightful chin, slightly dimpled like a child's, and gazed around the room for people more amusing to talk to. Disappointment. The usual suspects, and no other French people except the hopeless Madame Wallingforth. With despair she scanned the pretty rooms in deep salmon pink, curtained in green, candelabra of French vermeil, oil paintings of American subjects, especially barns and petits bateaux, large sofas in lime green, growly Anglo voices, that tall red-eyed anthropologist, and the pretty secretary or whatever she was, about whom, always, many rumors, the usual drab professor in bow tie and the plump wife-was this a reception for one of the bow ties, a famous economist or historian, was that it?-someone who had written a book, another book, about France? Zut, they produced them endlessly, anglophones and their books. Even Tim threatened to write one.
"Your reprehensible Tim telephoned to say he'll be late," Dorothy told her. "He's stuck in a taxi from the airport."
"Tant mieux, I'll have revenge then before he gets here." Anne-Sophie laughed and made a beeline for the good-looking black actor Sam Strait.

Reprinted from Le Mariage by Diane Johnson by permission of Dutton Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Diane Johnson. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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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 Mariage

Le Mariage is Diane Johnson's sparkling comedy of contemporary mores and manners that celebrates the paradoxes of marriage...as it is perceived on both sides of the Atlantic.

Anne-Sophie, one of the two heroines of the novel, is a proper though enterprising young Frenchwoman engaged to Tim Nolinger, a struggling American journalist. Anne-Sophie's mother, the worldly-wise novelist Estelle d'Argel, had loftier marital ambitions for her only daughter—"a count, a promising politician, a future Academician, or a sports figure. Or at least someone French." Instead, Tim spends his time (and what little money he has) traveling the world in search of newsworthy stories. The one he's pursuing now holds promise: A valuable illuminated manuscript has been stolen from a private collection in New York, which, rumor has it may have found its surreptitious way into the hands of Serge Cray, a reclusive film director living on the outskirts of Paris. Clara Holly Cray, Cray's Oregon-born wife and a former actress, is plagued by her own loneliness, vague yearnings, and anxiety about her deaf young son, sent by his father to a school in England. Her privileged, pampered life changes dramatically when she is suddenly accused of desecrating a national monument. At the same time, she finds herself falling irretrievably in love with a married Frenchman named Antoine de Persand.

As Tim, Anne-Sophie, a pair of American antique dealers, and the local gentry converge on the Cray home—a chateau rumored to have once belonged to Madame du Barry—hosts and houseguests alike become the victims of various suspicions, seductions, domestic crises, and declarations of love that send them all into erotic tailspins. Add to that a disappearing American; a hunting contretemps; a wrongful arrest; and murder, and you have this sexy, stylish delight of a novel that flawlessly captures the hopes, fears, and worldly views of Americans abroad and Parisians at home. Filled with the pithy insights, hilarious asides, and moral complexity that is the trademark of an author who has been compared to Jane Austen and Henry James, Le Mariage is Diane Johnson at her masterly best.

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 is—though 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 experiences—being 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 them—that mark the realization of being an individual, not just a unit in a couple—something 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 bookended—do comment on each other—I 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 occurs—in about the same proportion in both societies—but 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 seriously—many 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 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 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 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.

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?

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.

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 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.

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 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!

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 out—marriage 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 it—disgusting 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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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2006

    Excellent, especially for Americans who live or have lived in Paris.

    This book perfectly depicts the facets of the American/French relationship. The characters and conversations are hysterically accurate. The only drawback was the very last chapter as the feelings between Ann-Sophie and Tim are vague.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2006

    Boring!!!!!!

    I have nothing to say about this book! It has nothing interesting and is so wrong about the french and the americans. Even if it is a fiction novel, in which world does this author live?????

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2003

    Best Existentialist Novel Ever

    This is absolutely the most enjoyable existentialist novel I've ever read - including The Trial and L'Etranger. I was so mesmerized by all of the existentialism that I began to think that the information 'from the author of Le Divorce' on the cover of Le Mariage was in fact part of the existentialism that is rampant throughout the novel. I hope my high school Existentialist Literature teacher is including this book in her curriculum these days. Her name was Mrs. Woodard, and she taught at Northville High School in Michigan. I loved her class, and I know that she would LOVE this book!!!

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