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, and seduces Isabel with the techniques of Louis Jouvet rather than Alain Delon or Belmondo, let alone Depardieu. He also initiates her into the pleasures of pleasure:culinary, cultural (opera, theater, ballet), and sensual.
The whole Persand family assembles in the country every Sunday for a four- to five-course lunch which they analyze as they eat it. They are all charming and have beautiful manners. They regret Charles-Henri’s desertion, support Roxy, and welcome Isabel. Unfortunately, for financial reasons, Roxy will have to divorce Charles-Henri, even though she would prefer a separation. At this point, the book becomes a spirited guide to French divorce and property law. Property, as every reader of Balzac knows, is what holds French families together and wrenches them apart. The Persands, while remaining friendly—affectionate, even—and acknowledging that Roxy is the innocent party, present a rock face to her wishes regarding the division of goods. The fact that these wishes spring from sentiment, not acquisitiveness, and that she is pregnant, young, vulnerable, and far from home, does not enter into consideration. “‘It is always like this,”’ observes Roxy’s lawyer “with gloomy satisfaction. ‘People start out in agreement. Then, the hardening.”’ L’endurcissement.
Roxy’s chief desire is to keep an anonymous seventeenth-century French painting of Saint Ursula which belonged to the Walker family—i.e., her stepfamily. She was the one who loved it and hung it in her room in Santa Barbara, so they let her take it with her when she married Charles-Henri. She gave it to him as a wedding present. Now it turns out that it is probably a La Tour and therefore of great value. The Persands consider it to be Charles-Henri’s property, even though Charles-Henri doesn’t care. Besides, Madame de Persand points out to Isabel, it’s a French picture.
Isabel is outraged by such cultural fascism, which, she thinks, puts Madame de Persand in the same category as the bloodthirsty nationalist tribes warring in Bosnia. The Walkers are also indignant, though only morally, unpossessively, and, compared to the Persands, mildly (except for Isabel’s brother Roger, who is a lawyer and tougher than the rest of his gentle, woolly family).
Roxy is so upset by the divorce proceedings and conflict over Saint Ursula that she cuts her wrists in an unsuccessful and unconvincing suicide attempt. She has recovered by the time the Walker parents arrive in Paris with Roger and his wife. The object of their visit is partly to see Roxy through her desertion and the birth of her child, partly to protect Saint Ursula, and partly tourism.
The reason Charles-Henri walked out is that he found “the love of his life” (an expression Roxy can’t forgive) in the unlikely shape of a large middle-aged Czech sociologist, Magda Tellman, whose American lawyer- husband works for EuroDisney. He is an unsavory and unstable character, and jealousy drives him over the edge. The dramatic climax of the story—not unlike the prison breakout and hostage-taking episode in Johnson’s Lying Low—comes a few days before Roxy’s baby is due. Isabel, her stepmother, Madame de Persand, and one of her daughters take Gennie and a few other Persand grandchildren for a day out in EuroDisney. Tellman, gun in hand, holds them all hostage in Sleeping Beauty’s tower—except Isabel, whom he has conned into driving his car into position for a getaway.
Unlike the crisis in Lying Low, this one is sorted out by the police, in one of the most entertaining episodes—from the point of view of Franco-American relations—of the book. It turns out, though, that earlier in the day Tellman wounded his wife in a failed attempt to kill her, but succeeded in murdering Charles-Henri. Isabel notices later that when the French discuss the murder—not just the Persands but Roxy’s friends outside the family, too—they always refer to the assassin as l’Américain. They do not say that Charles-Henri had been killed by his mistress’s husband. The American colony, on the other hand, takes the view that Tellman’s arrest is too harsh and that he needs “help.” The contrast in attitudes is among Isabel’s lessons in Franco-American divergence.
Still, Charles-Henri’s death solves every problem. Heartbroken Roxy admits it to herself—with shame at the relief she feels. She will be a widow instead of a divorcée, and Saint Ursula will belong to her and her children. The painting is already at Drouot’s auction rooms, where it was to be sold so that its value could be divided. Now it fetches six times its estimate, i.e., six million francs, and all of it for Roxy. The sale takes place while she is giving birth to Charles-Luc. At Charles-Henri’s funeral, everyone admires her dignified grief and black suit, which must be new because it fits her slightly stouter than previous shape so perfectly.
“She had no need to choose,” thinks Isabel, grieving on her own behalf because she has (probably) lost the love of her life. For Edgar’s wife and all the Persands have discovered their affair; and he, with philosophical pronouncements about the transience of human relationships, has taken off for Zagreb. Roxy, on the other hand,
had everything she wanted. L’américaine. She could have everything. She had helped herself. She had borne and survived, and would continue, no doubt. She could choose among continents, languages, religions, and roles.
Not to speak of myself, but Iwas thinking of how perfect Roxy was, a lily of the field, and of how she had what she wanted. I thought of Mary and Martha… one of the many Biblical stories from which Ihad drawn a moral the opposite of the one intended, and was on the wrong side, as in the novels of Henry James, which Mrs. Pace had suggested I read. Iknew you were supposed to be Mary; but Roxy was Mary.
This reflection sums up what is really the main theme of the novel, i.e., the stepsisters’ archetypally contrasted characters, and the roles these characters impose on them—or enable them to choose. But it also explains why the novel has so much appeal. In Isabel’s analysis of Roxy’s destiny and her own, acute insight is expressed with disarming vernacular gaucheness. This is a winning combination. Isabel is a heroine with charm and wit. Johnson has always been good at female charm, but her previous heroines, on the whole, have been losers, condemned by their own endearing passivity, wetness, or goofiness. Isabel, in her family’s view, though a bit wild and promiscuous, is practical, analytical, “and thus ‘strong,’ or so they believe. This has often been confusing to them, for Iam also the designated Pretty One…. I suppose we are both intelligent, actually, but only Roxy gets credit for it.”
Isabel’s family take her lightly. Even when they discover her affair with Edgar, they are not shocked. It is a bit of a joke to them, and that hurts Isabel’s feelings. But they are right. She has the quality of lightness, and the resilience that goes with it. Johnson gives her chapters epigraphs, mostly from Adolphe, but also from Pascal, Proust, Michelet, and other impeccable sources. The last is by Montaigne: “One should always have one’s boots on and be ready to leave.” As she passes round the canapés at the last cocktail party in the book, Isabel finds that this is actually her condition. She hopes to join Edgar in Zagreb, and, if not, to get over him. She has several other things to look forward to. The quotation that would really suit her best are the Marschallin’s words to Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier:
One must take things lightly,
with light heart and light hands
hold and take, hold and relinquish…
Those who are not like that will be punished by life and God,
and God will have no pity on them.
This is serious advice about lightness. Le Divorce, like Johnson’s other novels, feels light but is serious. It takes desertion, suicide, and murder in its stride, as though they were merely obligatory literary devices. There is irony in the way it casually fits in an exotic love story, a thriller with blood on the floor, a whodunit concerning a CIA-inspired burglary, and an upmarket travelogue with engaging snapshots and aperçus. The narrative goes at a great lick, sometimes confusing, always entertaining, never—never meant to be—deeply moving. The author pokes fun at the Americans for moralizing, and at the French for being amoral; and she manages to be even-handed because she displays admiration for French elegance of behavior, and affection for American earnest good will.
You could read Le Divorce as an updated American variation on Nancy Mitford’s clever and delectable forty-year-old best-seller, The Pursuit of Love, in which a middle-aged French charmer undertakes the éducation sentimentale and worldly conditioning of a naive young English rose. Both novels have endearing heroines, but Mitford’s is profoundly frivolous, whereas Isabel has exceptional intelligence plus a West Coast moral conscience (not, of course, extending to sexual puritanism). It is Mrs. Pace who spells out for her what she instinctively believes.
She said what people were. And if she said someone was a fool, that didn’t necessarily mean that she held it against them. It depended on what kind of fool. She was the first person I had met who told the absolute, even if politically incorrect, truth, and it was usually a truth I felt in my heart already. She would not be afraid to say that we do not really like, say, the handicapped people taking up all the parking places. But she was a moral force too, and she would also say we ought not to act on our feelings. She taught me that it is not abnormal to have bitter or illiberal reactions to things, but it is just wrong to act on them, and that people get no moral credit for the hypocritical way they conceal such things as racism even from themselves. Only when you confront your racism can you expunge it, she would say. “The truth I don’t say will make you free,” she said, “but it is better than piety, because you know where you stand with it.”