Waking Up to a Nightmare

Like many of her readers these days, the characters in Diane Johnson’s novels expend considerable energy weighing their dark presentiment that the world is a treacherous and malevolent place against their bright hope that order and reason might prevail long enough so that everything may, if only temporarily, turn out for the best. Plucky and openhearted, her heroines often attribute their appealing personalities to the fact that they are Californian. What a Golden State it must be to have produced these remarkable beings, women gifted with so many apparent contradictions so usefully combined—paranoia and pragmatism, sociability and reserve, a functioning superego happily coexistent with a libidinous attraction to the glittery lure of adventure and high romance.

However thoughtful and intelligent, her protagonists prefer to avoid taking anything too seriously, particularly subjects and experiences that routinely move others to piety, sanctimony, sentimentality, or terror—for example, sex, politics, marital fidelity, physical discomfort, and danger. What gives these fictional creations their charm is their acute observations, their ability to draw amusing and perceptive conclusions about their surroundings, their unpredictable passions, arcane bodies of knowledge, and unusual philosophical views. Amy Ellen Hawkins, the wealthy Palo Alto dot-com executive at the center of L’Affaire (2003), is not only an expert skier and a believer in Prince Kropotkin’s ideas on the benefits of mutual aid, but the kind of person who can enter a party at a chic French ski resort with a sensitivity to her own mixed emotions that tellingly mirrors responses we ourselves may have entertained on similar occasions:

Amy had her usual sense of cocktail party hopefulness, knowing intellectually that the room would be as full of fools and bores as any party, but always with the belief that among these particular people some would be worldly, kindly, and friendly, and that kindred spirits would emerge. Why wouldn’t they? She struggled to suppress a surge of love for them—not these particular people, but for the powers of human organization, our gregarious natures, the kindliness of our impulses to share food and talk to each other, the sweetness of agreeing to dress up for others. Sometimes she saw these impulses as the product of the struggle for power, as Darwin might have, or at least Herbert Spencer, but for tonight she was touched by the sight of humans wishing to be liked by others and to make them lovely things to eat.

Ultimately, what’s winning about Johnson’s characters is their ability to view their fellow humans with both ironic detachment and a degree of tolerance and forgiveness that precludes the moralistic and judgmental. Perhaps only in the novels of Jane Austen have we met women who so persuasively display the benefits of cultivating a cool eye mediated by a warm heart. Johnson’s heroines make entertaining traveling companions, even after (or especially when) we have read enough of her work to suspect that our pleasant journeys may culminate in scenes of murder and mayhem.

The author of eleven novels, Johnson has created…

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