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Vive la Différence

In 1999, when the French government passed its new civil union law, known as the Pacte civil de solidarité, or PACS, many of the legal benefits of marriage were extended to those linked in a whole new range of attachments: same-sex couples, elderly maiden sisters, even celibate priests and their housekeepers. But it turns out the law may yet have another, more unexpected class of beneficiaries: fans of Diane Johnson’s breezy, knowing fictions of Americans abroad and the (mostly) French men and women entwined with them in bonds of bafflement, exasperation, and delight.

For the past half-decade, Johnson has been gallantly chronicling turn-of-the-millennium Franco-American mating rituals and the attendant, and purely Gallic, legal complications. Le Divorce (1997), set in a high-gloss Paris of boutiques and dinner parties, concerned the initiation of a nineteen-year-old American into the mysteries of extramarital affairs, French family life, and high-end leather goods as her older sister’s marriage to a French artist was dissolving into a highly litigious matter involving a suddenly valuable seventeenth-century painting. Le Mariage (2000) followed the fortunes of two other mixed marriages in the world of expat film directors, journalists, antique dealers, and divorcées.

Now, under the banner of the same cover artist and trailing the same garland of teasing epigrams (“Être ou ne pas être. Telle est la question“—William Shakespeare), comes the latest installment, L’Affaire. But is it also the last? PACS—invoked disapprovingly here by a matron upset with her daughter’s cohabitating ways—gives hope to those closing this satisfying book that there is another way of being together, or not-quite-together-anymore, left to explore, and perhaps we readers won’t just have to go back and start the trilogy all over again.

Johnson, who divides her time between Paris and San Francisco, knows the expat turf so well—in both its real-world and literary versions—that the novel comes off simultaneously as a nostalgic recapitulation of Great Aunt Sally’s golden junior year abroad and an up-to-the-minute intelligence report on the latest grouchy cross-cultural pillow talk. While there are plenty of extracurricular beddings here (and a generous helping of amusingly botched attempts), the title seems to refer not so much to a joyfully reckless romance as to a problem, a scandal, a delicious mess. The problem isn’t just politics. As Dumas fils writes in one of Johnson’s epigrams, “Les Affaires? C’est bien simple. C’est l’argent des autres“—the money of others.

The unwitting catalyst of the action is one Amy Hawkins, a clean-cut, filthy-rich, twenty-nine-year-old Californian who has come to the Hotel Croix St. Bernard in the French Alpine town of Valméri for a few weeks of energetic R&R. There are whispers that this neo-Jamesian naif is an heiress, but as Amy keeps anxiously reassuring herself she is nothing of the kind. Rather, she’s a retired dot-com executive with dreams of leveraging her millions into a personal foundation promoting the ideas of the Russian anarchist Kropotkin, who argued that contrary to Darwin human beings hauled themselves up from the primordial slime not through competition but through “mutual aid.”

To prepare herself for this endeavor, Amy has embarked on a relentless “personal program of self-perfection, an almost superstitious way of placating the gods for her recent good fortune.” Instead of libations there will be lessons: “Humbly, she would seek mastery of deferred skills like skiing, cooking, and speaking French.” To coordinate this triathlon she has enlisted the help of Madame Géraldine Chastine of Paris, a professional busybody and high-class fixer who sets her up with everything from classes on lobster immolation and timbales de saumon at the hotel’s renowned cooking school to a Left Bank pied-à-terre (“Tous les Louis, I would think, with contemporary accents,” Madame instructs the decorator) complete with expensively drab gray curtains and a pair of startlingly plain chairs bearing a 14,000-euro price tag.

But the money at the heart of the affair is not just Amy’s. A deluge of avalanches across the Alps—possibly triggered by American warplanes—has left dozens of skiers dead and thousands trapped in their resorts. Among those swept away in Valméri are British expatriate publisher Adrian Venn and his young American wife. As the couple linger in a coma, the disgruntled children descend on Valméri. For the inheritance-minded issue of his first marriage, mourning is little more than an après-ski activity—and one far less interesting than Continental trysts in the linen closet. Rupert, a disaffected bond trader, fantasizes about freeing himself from the grind of the City and taking up his father’s fine-editions press. Posy, a recent Cambridge graduate with “the air of slightly heartless confidence that goes with having been good at games, school, driving, amateur theatricals,…and everything else she had turned her hand to,” dreams of liberating herself from her dead-end job as a credit manager in a lingerie boutique.

But France has two surprises for the Venn children. First is an unknown sister, Victoire, the product of Mme. Chastine’s long-ago fling with Adrian Venn, who arrives trailing her husband, Émile, a telegenic North African intellectual specializing in sound-bite anti-Americanism and skirt-chasing. Second is Napoleon, whose enduring legacy is inheritance laws that favor children over spouses (not to men-tion some astoundingly ugly furniture: “It was odd,” Amy thinks to herself at one point, “that a villain of his-tory should have had such a large and deleterious influence on interior decorating”).

A dilemma arises: if Venn should die in France, his property will be divided evenly between his legitimate and illegitimate children, with only a small share left to his young wife. If he should die in England, the bulk of his estate will go to the wife and their infant son, in accordance with his will. Venn’s upright London lawyer declares that a way must be found to transport Venn and his wife to London, where the hospitals are better and the laws more sensible. Into the breach steps Amy, armed with can-do executive skills, ready cash, and an earnest desire to join in a collective task more noble and morally glamorous than the quaint Alpine traditions of reciprocal snow-shoveling and boozy trilingual bonhomie she has been admiring around the valley. Paying for Venn’s plane was “a karmic gesture in the service of mutual aid”—not to mention a chance to revel in the “heroic haste” of the ambulances and dashing paramedics.

But true to the law of unintended consequences, and recent world history, blithe American idealism ends up wreaking all sorts of havoc. Venn dies shortly after reaching British soil. Thanks to the adagio from Lully’s Andromache plucked out at her bedside on the saintly Victoire’s flute, Kerry awakens from her coma as if it were no more serious than a high-altitude hangover. She recalls seeing a silver-clad female figure with a spear, skiing just above her before the disaster—Saint Joan of Arc, perhaps, trying to steer her to safety, or was it some perfidious foreign troublemaker? Before long Émile finds himself in heavy talking-head rotation as a commentator on the persistence of French folk beliefs (“The fact that [Saint Joan] now turns up here [instead of Orléans]—I suppose it is globalization”), while Amy finds herself potentially on the hook for some serious financial liability for possibly abetting Adrian’s death. Throw in, for good measure, tax disputes between the French and British governments, a quasi-incestuous affair, a sexually confused British poet, a wolfish German baron trailing a “string of seedy-sounding Austrian honorifics” and dubious real estate propositions, a tin of ashes no one quite knows what should be done with, or by whom, and a hare-brained last-minute mutual-aid-cum-real-estate scheme in the South of France, and you have more farce than three-hundred-odd pages quite know what to do with.

While Johnson finds some fresh marrow in the well-picked bone of contention between France and its English-speaking friends, the social comedy (like the mountain air) seems a bit thinner than it does in the earlier installments. While Isabel Walker, the nineteen-year-old Californian heroine of Le Divorce, recounts her own first-person story of family strife and French property law from the point of view of an ingenue already wised up by the mystical knowledge gained by sleeping with an actual Frenchman, Amy’s own innocence—sexual and otherwise—drags out for an improbably long time. True, even the most Martha Stewart– minded Silicon Valley denizen may be ignorant of the historically correct way to launder an eighteenth-century Bavarian linen tablecloth (bleach it by moonlight). But would a Stanford graduate and hard-nosed businesswoman really marvel endlessly at the wonders of a Frenchwoman’s toi-lette, or the sophistication imparted merely by wearing a tie? When she finally be-gins parrying Émile’s anti-American jabs (Émile: Personal perfection “is simple vanity disguised as Protestant virtue”; Amy: “Many religions incorporate physical feats—fasting, standing on your head, the plow”), it’s hard to believe the poor creature has even such wan banter in her—or that it would finally succeed in luring Émile into bed where long blond hair and a lithesome form have so far failed.

But still, Johnson has once again pulled off her own feat—the creation of a feather-light comic world that hovers just above our own while still tracing its shadow. At a time when America stands accused of recklessly throwing its weight around abroad, this gentle satire of good intentions gone awry is just sharp enough to let the air out of the room a bit. Instead of going for sleekly plotted overkill, Johnson gathers together a sturdy cast of human types and gives them enough comic juice and simple gumption to make it through every raggedy and improbable twist of fate and plot. This unfailingly gracious and companionable novel realizes from the beginning what it takes Amy some three hundred pages and untold dollars to figure out—that parties, with “each guest acceding by his presence to the principle of human sociability,” are the grandest and sweetest form of mutual aid.

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