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Le Mariage by Diane Johnson

"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

From the author of the acclaimed bestseller and National Book Award finalist Le Divorce, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780452282261
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/2001
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,024,650
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Diane Johnson is the author of the bestselling novel Le Divorce, a National Book Award finalist, as well as many other novels, including Persian Nights, Health and Happiness, Lying Low, The Shadow Knows, and Burning. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Persian Nights, and she co-authored the screenplay to The Shining with Stanley Kubrick. She divides her time between San Francisco and Paris.


Paris, France, and San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

April 28, 1934

Place of Birth:

Moline, Illinois


B.A., University of Utah; M.A., Ph.D., UCLA, 1968

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.

What People are Saying About This

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

Reading Group Guide


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 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.



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.


"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



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!


  • 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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    Le Mariage 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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?????
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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!!!