Monday, May 30, 2011

Le Divorce by Diane Johnson

A California and a French family clash when the children go through a divorce

The theme and the overarching plot of this novel is practically the same as "Persian Nights"; the clueless Americans parachuted into a polite bemused foreign culture, though Paris is not in such a state of crisis as pre revolutionary Tehran. I would say this book is expertly plotted, as a fast moving farce. The concluding set piece takes place, this time not at Persepolis but Euro Disney. That climax is followed quickly by a genuine tragedy.

I was a little timid about reading this, because I had so much loved Diane Johnson’s earlier black comedies and this is her most famous book, so I thought it might be sitcommy or sentimental, but no, the satire remains razor sharp, but communicated by a youthful exuberant compelling yet still ditzy first person narrator. I enjoyed reading her voice very much.

Isabel Walker, wealthy young Santa Barbaran, comes to Paris to help her older sister Roxeanne with child care. Only Roxeanne has a secret- her French husband has abandoned her. Reluctantly Roxeanne agrees to a divorce, French style. But there’s that matter of a two million dollar family painting she has gifted her faithless husband. The rest of the American family comes to Paris to investigate. In the meantime, Isabel, whose name echoes that of Isabel Archer, another expatriate dealing with unbreakable European traditions, grows very fond of Paris, its food, its fashion and its 70 year old politicians.

The energy and the comedy come from the culture clash between the two families. Many of the sentences were full of a love of language and a love of life. The plot elements, the Hermes bag, the painting of St Ursula, the glazed bowls, were inserted discreetly. Also, I really admired the way the dinner scenes with several characters were perfectly clear. And even though the story was nominally first person, there were plenty of glimpses into other characters’ heads, in other parts of the world.

I thought it was delightful.

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