There are many pleasures to Diane Johnson’s new cultural comedy, Le Mariage. It is serious, intelligent, witty, sporting, and even touching. But perhaps the most welcome pleasure of them all is that, like some dashingly sophisticated aunt from the big city, this novel is utterly charming.
Le Mariage is the second chronicle of Diane Johnson’s expatriate Americans muddling their earnest ways through the grace and strict sensual beauty of Paris. Like Le Divorce before it, Le Mariage exposes the exquisite cultural absurdities that appear when Americans and French people are stirred together, around and around, elbow to elbow, in the same little social cup. Johnson’s last novel began with the breakup of the marriage of a young American poet and her husband, a philandering French painter. Le Mariage catalogs the hopes, misunderstandings, and disappointments of two marriages, one on its last legs, the other still picking out its trousseau.
Clara Holly, a thirty-two-year-old expatriate of startling beauty, is a long-retired ingenue married to Serge Cray, the famous Polish director of her first, and only, film (and a character with a strong resemblance to Stanley Kubrick, Johnson’s friend for whom she wrote the screenplay of The Shining). Cray is now in the ninth year of his artistic paralysis. The Crays live outside Paris in a big château which they have meticulously restored, using carpenters and props from Serge’s last film, Queen Caroline. “Had she married in bad faith,” Clara asks herself, “for conventional reasons like pregnancy, or because he was famous, which is easy to confuse with love?” Whatever the reason, she has grown comfortable with her life in France. “Clara Holly remembered her roots,” Johnson tells us, “yet would rather not….” The root in question lives on in Lake Oswego, Oregon. “‘There’s nine hours’ time difference between here and France,’ Mrs. Holly would always add, it being so odd to think of Clara all the way on the other side of the world where it was dark when the sun shone in Oregon.”
Clara receives a telephone call from a tourist visiting from Lake Oswego. The girl, Delia, has had her passport stolen on her first day in Paris. On her second day, she and her traveling companion discover a man with his throat cut. Superior to the barbarian natives, horrified by a brasserie called Le Bon Tabac (“In Oregon you would instantly go out of business if you called a restaurant The Good Tobacco”), Delia, a millennial extremist who goes to the Louvre to soak up the healing powers of the pyramid, is the ultimate hapless tourist, and Clara feels a duty to take her in until the French police clear things up, noting with some equanimity that “at least…self-pity has the merit that it is apt to be sincere.” Serge, a collector of apocalyptic manuscripts who imagines America “as a nation of right-wing revolt, made up of desperado school boards, subversive Boy Scout troops, renegade Chambers of Commerce, Lions Clubs and …