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.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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
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. --
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 Persanda poet long resident in Paris, with a French husband (Charles-Henri, a moderately successful painter) and a young daughteris pregnant again when she learns that her husband is having an affair with a married woman. Charles-Henri's elegant family, led by a daunting matriarch, become involved in the efforts to resolve the domestic drama. After all, they suggest, men must have their little follies. Isabel, bright, inquisitive, anxious to sample life, serves as a go-between, and along the way herself begins an affair with Edgar, an urbane diplomat and wonderfully self-assured lover some 50 years her senior. The rest of Isabel's well-heeled but somewhat contentious family arrive, and a marvelous scene ensues in which the Walkers and de Persands sit down for a meal and gradually realize that their tastes and ideas are hopelessly at odds. Johnson is especially good at catching the class-bound, cool, utter self- assurance of the French upper classes, and the determinedly frank, aggressive innocence of their American counterparts. Violence erupts when the husband of Charles-Henri's mistress goes on a shooting spree. There will be several deaths and some surprising but believable revelations about many of these people before Isabel emerges into her own, the only character to begin to grasp the limitations of each side of her transatlantic family.
A shrewd, carefully detailed portrait of the ways in which Americans and the French continue to romanticize, denigrate, and misapprehend each other, contained in a well-paced, believably dramatic narrative.