Diane Johnson’s latest book belongs to a genre, the novel about rites of passage, subdivision American-in-Paris.In the prologue the ghosts of Gertrude Stein, Janet Flanner, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and James Jones are invoked by the nineteen-year-old American narrator, Isabel Walker. So she is not uncivilized, just inexperienced (except, she lets fall, sexually). She is a nice girl from a nice, impeccably liberal family, the daughter of a university professor at Santa Barbara, and has dropped out after a year at the UCLA film school. She has never been farther abroad than Tijuana, and speaks no French. “Iarrived in Paris as scheduled—it is now six months ago,” she announces “—by coincidence the day after Roxy’s French husband, Charles-Henri, walked out on her.” Roxy is her stepsister and senior by five years. She is expecting her second child, and Isabel has come to help her with the first, three-year-old Gennie; and also to see Paris and think about her next career move.
The most immediately visible aspect of this sexy, graceful, and funny novel is a witty two-way Franco-American guide to manners and attitudes. Upper-middle-class French behavior is noted and analyzed, from the obsession with food (the narrative is peppered with delectable menus), to degrees of Catholic observance and the art of scarf-tying: “They are never seen without scarves…. Knot in front, one end in front, other end over the shoulder:looped around double, ends tucked in over the shoulder outside the coat, like a shawl; tied in back. Châle, foulard, écharpe—only think of the number of words they have, and in a language with a very sparse vocabulary.” There is a lot about French ideas of American qualities, all of them exhibited by Isabel, and “each with its positive and negative aspect:frank/tactless, impetuous/heedless, fresh/gauche, generous/spendthrift.” On the other hand, Isabel is introduced to the social round and mores of American expatriates, and their clichéd observations about the French. (“My god, these people, the way they sabotage the lowly hamburger,” an American art historian says.)
Roxy’s Paris-American milieu consists of art dealers, diplomats, writers, and “trust fundies.” Its queen is the writer Olivia Pace, who comes across like a hybrid of Janet Flanner and Mary McCarthy, with liberal political opinions and fastidious moral judgments that sound as though they are to be taken as exemplary. The French are represented by Charles-Henri’s good-looking, tennis-playing, bon chic, bon genre family, the Persands. Madame de Persand is a vivacious matriarch. She has a flat in the Avenue Wagram and a country house near Chartres (all French families have at least two country houses, Isabel thinks, one inherited from each side). She also has five children (Charles-Henri being the youngest and favorite), many grandchildren with double-barreled names like Marie-Odile and Paul-Louis, and a devastatingly attractive brother of seventy. L’oncle Edgar is an exminister turned political pundit who campaigns for French intervention on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims, makes frequent television appearances …