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 …

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