Lulu in Marrakech

Lulu in Marrakech

by Diane Johnson


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“Timely and provocatively incorrect."— (Mysteries Every Thinking Woman Should Read)

The two-time Pulitzer Prize and three-time National Book Award-nominated author of Le Divorce returns with a mesmerizing novel of double standards and double agents

Now, Diane Johnson brilliantly exposes the manners and morals of the cultural collision between Islam and the West. Lulu Sawyer arrives in Marrakech, Morocco, hoping to rekindle her romance with a worldly Englishman, Ian Drumm. It's the perfect cover for her assignment for the CIA: tracing the flow of money from well-heeled donors to radical Islamic groups. While spending her days poolside among Europeans in villas staffed by maids in abayas, and her nights at lively dinner parties, Lulu observes the fragile and tense coexistence of two cultures. But beneath the surface of this polite expatriate community lies a sinister world laced not only with double standards, but double agents.

Johnson weaves a dazzling tale in the great tradition of works about naïve Americans abroad, with a fascinating new assortment of characters as well as witty and timely observations on the political and sexual complexities between Islamic and Western culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780452295599
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/29/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(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

Reading Group Guide


Lulu Sawyer, the heroine of Diane Johnson’s captivating new novel, arrives in Marrakech, Morocco, hoping to rekindle her romance with a worldly Englishman, Ian Drumm. It’s the perfect cover for her assignment with the American CIA: tracing the flow of money from well-heeled donors to radical Islamic groups. While spending her days poolside among Europeans, in villas staffed by local maids in abayas, and her nights at lively dinner parties, Lulu observes the fragile coexistence of two cultures which, if not yet clashing, have begun to show signs of fracture. Beneath the surface of this polite expatriate community lies a more sinister world laced not only with double standards, but with double agents.

As she navigates the complex interface of Islam and the West, Lulu stumbles into unforeseen intrigues: A young Muslim girl, Suma, is hiding from a brother intent on an honor killing; and a beautiful Saudi woman, Gazi, who is vying for Ian’s love, leaves her husband in a desperate bid to escape her repressive society. The more Lulu immerses herself in the workings of Marrakech, the more questions emerge; and when bombs explode, the danger is palpable.

Lulu’s mission ultimately has tragic consequences, but along the way readers will fall in love with this endearing young woman as she improvises her way through the souk, her love life, and her profession. As in her previous novels, Diane Johnson weaves a dazzling tale in the great tradition of works about naive Americans abroad and the laws of unintended consequence, with a new, fascinating assortment of characters, as well as witty, trenchant observations on the manners and morals of a complicated moment in history.



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.

  • Reread the prologue in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. How did you interpret it before reading the novel, and how do you interpret it now?
  • On the very first page, Lulu Sawyer discusses Americans’ tendency toward gullibility, that “our ability to fool ourselves is greater than the ability of others to fool us.” In what ways was she describing herself? How did that help or hinder her in her work?
  • Given Lulu’s line of work, trust is a major theme throughout the novel. Who turns out to be most trustworthy? Least? What about Lulu herself?
  • At the bottom of page 47, Lulu confesses that she hates to bargain, probably because of the lying implied in the transaction. How does this jibe with her chosen career? What about her notion of victory and defeat that are embedded within any bargain?
  • Sexism affects all of the women in the novel, in both religious and institutional terms. How is the sexism Lulu faces from her colleagues different than the sexism Suma and Gazi face in their daily lives, if it is in fact different?
  • Lulu seems to be suspicious of Ian almost from the beginning, and yet she falls in love with him. What does this say about her aptitude for her job? How might she have handled things differently?
  • What role do Posy and Robin play in the novel? If they weren’t in this precise setting, do you think Posy and Lulu would be friends? Which would you rather have as a friend?
  • Discuss the character of Colonel Barka. How did he use Lulu, and vice versa? Ultimately, was he a “good guy”?
  • On page 192, Taft lumps Gazi and Suma together. Do you imagine the Muslim men do the same with Lulu and Posy? What is the effect of this stereotyping?
  • How is the way Taft approaches his job different from the way Lulu approaches hers? In what ways is each one’s method more effective?
  • On page 206, Lulu adopts a line from T. S. Eliot as a mantra: “Prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” How well does she follow through on that notion?
  • Lulu accepts the notion of ambivalence as being “built into life in the shadows; even as you hope for unshakable convictions, you feel them drain away” (page 251). How has her experience in Marrakech weakened her convictions? How strong were they to begin with?
  • After Amid’s death, Lulu feels that her guilty conscience is “not so much a moral qualm as chagrin at having screwed up” (page 265). What does this say about her character? Is she better suited to her job than she appeared to be?
  • Reread the letter from Ian’s father to Lulu on page 266. How did you interpret it when you first read it? Did your interpretation change as you read further?
  • Why does Suma steal the notebook from Khaled? Why does the colonel pass it on to Lulu?
  • After reading Gazi’s letter, Lulu thinks, “It helped me understand what had gone wrong between her and Ian, if anything had: She was too dumb” (page 306).What makes her think this? Why did Gazi write to her?
  • Lulu imagines herself to be the Ingrid Bergman character in the film Notorious, with Ian in the Cary Grant role and Lord Drumm as Claude Rains (page 295). Have you seen the film? Do you think her casting is accurate?
  • Discuss the ending. Was it satisfying to you? In what ways did it surprise you? What questions, if any, do you still have about what happened?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Lulu in Marrakech 2.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
    marie_ambrosia More than 1 year ago
    I had not read any of Ms. Johnson's books before. I picked this one up at Barnes and Noble and was unsure about its quality after reading other reviews. I don't know anything about Morocco, but I think the story is less to do with the accuracy of Morocco and more about bringing up questions about how different cultures can learn to appreciate each other. I was very interested in the story and also the outcome. I connected with Lulu and wanted to know how things turned out. I have not read many spy books, but felt this was an interesting twist to a book primarily for women. It includes romance, mystery, and thoughts on politics and multi-culturalism. Check it out!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I¿m an American who has lived in Marrakech for nearly 30 years and after reading this book, I¿m wondering what Marrakech the author is talking about? She passes off a mish-mash of foods, traditions, names and clothing from other parts of the Islamic world that have nothing to do with Morocco. There are so many factual errors¿there¿s no Moroccan dish called poulet au poivres rouges no raisins in a pigeon pastilla, and no goats in the trees on the Casablanca road, to name a few¿that I couldn¿t help wondering if the author was going to set her spy story in Marrakech, why on earth didn¿t she take the trouble to get the details right? There are also so many inaccuracies in her descriptions of the relations between Muslims and Christians that it would seem to add even more fuel to the fire of misunderstandings that already exist between us and the Islamic world. If you want to get an authentic look at life in Marrakech as seen by a Western woman, read another book: ¿Zohra¿s Ladder & other Moroccan Tales.¿
    michelamad on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    It is really unfair the way islam is treated in this book. It stroke me that this was accepted by a main publishing house such as Penguin. The author, through the main character, presents only the worst of the islamic culture in Morocco . Some comments are racist and offensive (all women are mistreated, all islamists are terrorists...).The spy story itself is not credible, it is more about gossiping than spying. Despite all this, the plot is engaging and sometimes humorous.
    bearette24 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This was well-written, but not the bubbly, feel-good concoction I'd been expecting. As always, Johnson has interesting views on cultural differences, gender roles and human nature, but the book was also a bit of a downer, with important questions left unanswered (though perhaps this was realistic).
    sdliz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Disappointing, Diane Johnson's L'Divorce was a spot on comedy of manners. Lulu was over her head as an intelligence operative in Marrakech, she didn't grow as a character.
    bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I like Johnson's writing, but this book couldn't quite decide what it wanted to be. The beginning was quite promising: heroine works undercover for the CIA and is sent to Marrakech, ostensibly to reunite with her lover, to ferret out sources of terrorist group financing. Her lover has other affairs, she meets clandestinely with her handler and her contact, they end up torturing and mistakenly killing a suspect - but neither the emotion of a love story or the spycraft of a good spy novel are there. Plus she's the most inept unbelievable spy I've ever encountered.
    BeckyJG on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Diane Johnson's novels are, unfortunately, a long time coming. But when they arrive they're worth the wait: little gems of simple, beautifully wrought language, domestic comedies that study the lives of American ex-pats abroad. Having chosen to live their lives outside the United States, still, Johnson's heroines must figure out how to muddle through each day--even after years in their adopted countries--as fish out of water...or, at least, as fish in a new bowl with very different water indeed.Lulu Sawyer is a spy. She's not a very good spy, swept up as she is by both her own personal drama and those of the people she's living among. At the opening of Lulu in Marrakech Lulu (her chosen, spy name, although it seems to suit her well) is just moving to North Africa on a new assignment. Information coming to her on a need-to-know basis as it does, and Lulu being an extremely junior member of the agency, she doesn't really know what her assignment is. However, she does get to move in with her new British boyfriend Ian and preside over his English country house in the desert where visiting poets, artists, and assorted eccentrics come and go.A classic unreliable narrator--and a charming and engaging one, at that--Lulu is forever muddling her assignment, forgetting her tradecraft, and blurring the lines--or erasing them altogether--between work and personal life. We never really do find out exactly what Lulu's assignment is, but it's fun being along for the ride. She paints a vivid picture, through American eyes long accustomed to a European lens, of life in a culture so foreign as to be incomprehensible at times. In the end, Lulu moves on to a new assignment, in a more familiar milieu: England.Let's hope Diane Johnson doesn't make us wait another eight or ten years for her next novel, and let's hope, as well, that it follows the further adventures of Lulu Sawyer.
    verbafacio on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I really liked both the style and the premise of this book. Particularly, I enjoyed a spy novel that also took into account the constant ambiguity of living a double life and seemed vaguely realistic about the emotions that lifestyle engenders. Lulu is a fairly believable and likeable character, and supporting characters like the very pregnant Posy make the story enjoyable.However, I found this book incredibly frustrating. The story ends with almost nothing resolved, in fact, with more ambiguity than when it started. This, too, may be more like real-life espionage, but it makes the book seem pointless. Perhaps Johnson is setting herself up for a sequel, in which all is revealed. In which case, I would skip reading this book altogether until you could read the entire set.
    Bonnie_C More than 1 year ago
    This book was given to me by a friend who knew that I liked to travel to foreign countries and that I enjoyed stories of intrigue. So this should have been a perfect fit. Unfortunately the characterizations in the story were too small and the plot fell way short. Lulu is a CIA agent that reunites with a lover from the past. The lover, Ian, owns a factory in Marrakech that may or may not have been blown up by terrorists. Ian may or may not be a person of interest of the CIA. Suma is an acquaintance whose life may or may not be threatened by her brother. Suma has an acquaintance named Desi who may or may not have been a potential suicide bomber. Suma may or may not have been involved in the may or may not have been suicide bomber plot. I do applaud the author for choosing Marrakech as the background. This offers an almost mystical setting for the story. The merging of Eastern and Western cultures along with the clash of the Christian and Muslim religions is very relevant in today's world. However, the background is not strong enough to overcome the confusion of the plot. I finished this story with as many questions as when I started. With my criticisms stated, this would probably be a book worthy of a discussion group. The characters and events of the story could be developed and understood through discussion and debate. Perhaps then the characters could be seen more clearly and the plot better appreciated.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Lulu in Marrakech was for me a victim of preconceived notions. Lulu Sawyer--the alias of a novice CIA field agent--narrates her time in Marrakech with the mission of tracing how money flows to radical Islamist groups. Lulu does not fit the part, or perhaps she internalized her cover story too well -- coming to Marrakech to continue a romance with Englishman Ian Drumm while working on female literacy on the side. Without prior research, she doesn't know what she's getting into and worries when Ian doesn't come pick her up at the airport. Her stay consists mostly of spending time with other expatriates in the Marrakech community, relatively isolated in Ian's villa, contemplating the female Muslim condition in that hesitant, rising pitch intonation that turns everything into an unanswered question. She is kept in the dark by her Company colleagues, and it seems like a sheer coincidence that the intrigue which happens occurs in her small circle. However, if I didn't expect a spy novel in an exotic locale, having known that Diane Johnson is a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize nominated novelist for social and moral comedies featuring American heroines in foreign lands, I might have enjoyed Lulu's experience more. Since the story is well set up for a sequel, I might have the chance to try again.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I've read hundreds of books in my lifetime and can honestly say there have been less than 5 that I didn't finish. This almost was one, though. I just couldn't seem to really care about Lulu or any of the other characters and had to force myself to finish the book. I kept thinking it would get better, but it didn't. Pretty much a waste of time.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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    huffyreader More than 1 year ago
    With such a lovely book jacket and a fun title, I was greatly disappointed by this book. The title character, Lulu, is allegedly a California girl who works for an unnamed division of the US government that does undercover work. Yet Lulu is so inept at undercover, one believes that she could never even play hide and seek as a child! The author is plainly British, as evidenced by her word usage. Lulu speaks words and phrases that no self respecting Californian - or any twentysomething American, for that matter - would ever prounounce. The plot is mostly unbelievable and pointless. Lulu accomplishes nothing and learns even less. I, however, have learned my lesson about being seduced by book jackets and titles.
    evcrow518 More than 1 year ago
    This is a story with an identity crisis. Is it a spy story? Is it a romance? Is a statement about Islam? Is it a portrayal of American naivete abroad? Who knows? The author seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once. She doesn't fully develope any of the characters. It's hard to relate or sympathize with any of them including the main character, Lulu. I know that the CIA has made mistakes in the past, but even they wouldn't hire someone so ignorant and uninformed as Lulu. If anyone wishes to read this book, I recommend not purchasing it, but borrowing it. I read it for my book club and, at the end of our discussion, we decided to donate all our copies to charity. None of us desired to keep it as part of our personal collections.