- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003


By Diane Johnson

Dutton, $24.95, 278 pages


After “Le Divorce” and “Le Mariage,” here comes “L’Affaire,” the third of Diane Johnson’s novels set in France, a delicious concoction as light as a souffle yet satisfying as boeuf a la bourguignonne. The author has published 11 other books of fiction and fact, but in relating the misadventures of Americans in Paris she has found her niche and a measure of fame and fortune. She has not so much borrowed Henry James’ favorite theme but taken it and made it her own, aiming clever barbs at both American and French cultural attitudes, along with astute, often witty, observations on contemporary life.

Her heroine this time is 29-year-old blonde and dimpled Amy Hawkins, no Jamesian heiress but a former dot-com executive from California who becomes a multi-millionaire when her company is sold at a huge profit. Pleased with her financial success, Amy nevertheless “was embarrassed by her money, had not yet learned how to feel about it, and could not forget that nouveau riche was a term so dismissive that it had been left in the original French, like terms for other harsh concepts — coup de grace or savoir faire.”

Moreover, she is painfully aware of her almost total ignorance of foreign languages, history, art, music, literature and more. Amy, notes her French mentor Geraldine, also lacks taste, making her the perfect tabula rasa for Geraldine’s own impeccable sense of what’s right. So, temporarily at leisure, Amy embarks on a program of self-improvement unusual one would guess among freshly-hatched millionaires.

Resolved to soak up some European culture, to learn to cook, speak French, improve her skiing, and perhaps find romance along the way, Amy heads for a posh hotel in the French Alps. Once perfected, she plans to return to California to start her own foundation to promote the concept of “mutual aid” in evolving societies, an idea espoused by the Russian philosopher Prince Kropotkin.

Skiing alone a few days into her trip, Amy hears the crash of an avalanche — started, several people told her later — by low-flying American warplanes on their way to the Middle East. (The buildup to the American invasion of Iraq is ominously in the background throughout.) Shaken but unharmed, Amy hurries back to the hotel to hear that two of the guests, Adrian Venn, a noted British publisher in his seventies, and his much younger American wife, Kerry, were not so lucky. Buried alive by the avalanche, they are eventually found by a mountain rescue team and taken to a nearby hospital where they remain comatose. Hooked up to life-support machines, Adrian is not expected to survive.

Before long, Posy and Rupert Venn, Adrian’s children by his first marriage, arrive from London (affording the author an opportunity to bash the British as well as Americans and the French) followed by Victoire, his illegitimate French daughter. The author throws in an Austrian baron with a roving eye, a sexually ambivalent British poet and a brace of attractive Frenchmen — Amy’s ski instructor and Victoire’s husband Emile, a devilishly handsome television talking head with harsh views about Americans: “brash, arrogant, loud-talking and loud-dressing bullies, with no understanding of other cultures … and concerned only with American hegemony.”

Isolated in the hotel, the assembled personalities flirt, squabble, fall into adulterous beds, and bump into each other in the corridors in a French Alps version of Grand Hotel with elements of Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” and a soupcon of rollicking French farce.

At the hospital, the Venns become aware of arcane French inheritance laws dating back to Napoleon’s time which decree that Adrian’s properties in France — his chateau, vineyard and publishing business — will be divided among all his children, including illegitimate Victoire, but not his wife. The Venns’ British lawyer disputes this of course. Amy, persuaded by the lawyer that Adrian should be flown to London, offers to pay for it, a generous gift that does not turn out well.

Between sessions of keeping a deathbed watch over her father, Posy allows herself a brief affair with Emile. She feels the teensiest bit guilty about this but decides that she deserves a fling. Certainly Adrian’s imminent death adds a certain frisson to her energetic couplings, which the author handles with an exquisite mixture of discretion and glee.

Emile’s wife, Victoire, sensing what’s going on, launches into a tirade against all things British, starting with buxom Posy, with her “probably strong English smell of sheep, fish and chips, soot, trains, the vomit she had once smelled in the British Museum as a child taken to Londres, hating the cold rooms, the flannel sheets, the unstrained tea, the too sweet chocolate, the brown teeth, the tooting voices … what did they have, really, les Anglais, besides Shakespeare?”

Amy manages to learn a bit of French (though not as much as she had hoped because the Europeans she meets all insist on conversing in English to show off their superior language skills), how to cook a lobster, and possibly more than she ever wanted to know about the history of 18th century table linens, in particular the esoteric art of moon-bleaching. More importantly Amy discovers that for individuals as well as nations it is not enough to be well-meaning and well off when meddling in the affairs of others and that it is not always wise to come to the rescue of people who have not asked for it.

The novel is more tightly and convincingly plotted than “Le Mariage” and “Le Divorce,” both of which resorted to closing scenes with mad Frenchmen toting guns in unlikely circumstances. The last part of “L’Affaire” moves the action to Paris where the characters who gathered in the Alps are reunited; some of them pair off, giving readers the pleasure of watching seemingly incompatible people draw inevitably together. Whether or not they live happily ever after is another story and perhaps the subject of a fourth French-accented novel by Diane Johnson. One hopes so.

Writer Lorna Williams lives in Washington and France.

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