Saturday, February 25, 2012
L'Affaire by Diane Johnson
A rich young American woman goes to Europe to acquire some culture.
You would think that in the third of Diane Johnson’s Franco American misunderstanding novels, (all with related sounding titles), the plot or the settings or the characters would start to feel hackneyed or cranked out. But L’Affaire felt fully realized, standing on its own with insights about sudden dot com millionaires, death by avalanche and an exploration of the legal and the emotional side of inheritances. Luckily L’Affaire drops the frenetic plotting of Le Mariage, Johnson's previous book, and proceeds at a statelier pace. The story therefore felt more concentrated and moving.
The plot is presented as frivolous though it’s not frivolous at all. This time we stay pretty much fixed in the mind of Amy Ellen Hawkins, a dot com executive from Palo Alto, California. After collecting her millions, she intends to widen her horizons, get some polish, and learn about things she is deciding could possibly be important. But before she begins her serious education in Paris, she takes time out to ski at a French resort.
Amy approaches situations in a characteristically American way. She’s nice, she wants to help, she blunders. When a fourteen year old American boy at the ski resort is effectively abandoned after his sister and her elderly husband are injured, Amy gets involved, motivated by the theories of Prince Kropotkin and his Mutual Aid book. She tries to put them into practice. (This trait reminded me of Dorothea in Middlemarch.)
The second plot concerns the victims of the avalanche and the heirs of the husband, a British very rich publishing cad. He has four children, two legitimate English, one illegitimate French and a legitimate American toddler. He lies in a coma and the geographic location of his death will make a huge impact on the fortunes of his children. So what is the proper thing to do? Humorous cross cultural misunderstandings abound.
Diane Johnson’s novels are ostensibly comic, but horrible things happen to the characters, horrible things with no solace. It’s the case here as well. In addition, it’s beautifully written. Among other things, it’s a meditation and an observation on anti Americanism, and, as always, sexual attraction between a man and a woman.