French disconnection


Après Le Divorce, Le Mariage. Well, at least for Diane Johnson, who’s followed up her successful novel about a French husband leaving his pregnant Californian wife with another unromantic Americans-in-Paris tale. This time, however, the love-hate relationship shared by the world’s two most narcissistic nations becomes a metaphor for the seductive woe that is in marriage. Though Le Mariage is neither a prequel nor a sequel of Le Divorce, a few peripheral characters recur. The new book is in many ways more ambitious, reaching beyond the international comedy of manners with a cast and plot of near soap opera proportions. What it conspicuously lacks, however, is a character as winning as Isabel Walker, the USC film school dropout, whose recounting in Le Divorce of her not very sentimental European education delightfully invoked that other Isabel, of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady–albeit with late-20th-century SoCal inflections.

While there’s no true starring protagonist in Le Mariage, Clara Holly, the glamorous American wife of Hollywood film director Serge Cray, emerges as a central figure. Presiding over her garden in her French château outside of Paris, she seems to be leading a charmed life, marred only perhaps by the inevitable effects of time on her delicate beauty and the background worry about her deaf son recently shipped off to boarding school in England. Though only dimly recognized, the emotional poverty of her marriage, her distance from her Oregon roots, and her lack of professional purpose now that her short-lived acting career is over mark her as a character ripe for tumultuous change.

The vehicle of transformation, however, is a cultural juggernaut born out of the collision of French and American attitudes, which naturally heats up considerably when sex or money is at stake. The complicated saga involves Tim Nolinger, an American journalist in pursuit of a manuscript stolen from the Morgan Library, which the authorities suspect may end up in the hands of Clara’s collector husband, Serge, who just happens to be in preproduction on a film about a militant millennial cult in the U.S. that’s been stealing valuable artworks to fund their cause. Add to this Tim’s quintessentially French fiancée, Anne-Sophie, who’s recently witnessed a murder believed to have something to do with the manuscript; an Oregon neighbor of Clara’s mother, who’s detained by the FBI during her visit to Paris and eventually takes to Serge’s bed; and an enraged group of French hunters told they can no longer hunt on the grounds of the Crays’ château and who in retaliation pursue charges against Clara for allegedly desecrating (overdecorating) her landmark house.

A curious phenomenon is the way everyone is so interconnected, from an Oregon flea market proprietor to Anne-Sophie’s famous literary mother. Globalization may have brought us all closer together, but in this increasingly unwieldy story there are far fewer than six degrees of separation between anyone. Johnson retains her knack for seizing on details that reveal the anxious plight of the American community in Paris—Must the father of the groom really chip in for half the wedding? Is cashmere too formal for a Sunday garden party? But the problem is that her miniseries plot keeps crowding out her more telling microscopic perceptions.

As the tangents and red herrings pile up, Clara’s fate grows more bizarre. After serving a few days in prison for the way she renovated her home (too modern), she is released on bail, only to begin an affair with Monsieur de Persand, one of the irate hunters who are pressing their suit against her. Meanwhile, her husband Serge has been otherwise engaged in his research into an Oregon sect of Y2K crazies who have kidnapped Clara’s senile mother (don’t ask!). The moment he discovers his wife’s infidelity, however, he casts a darkening shadow not only on Anne-Sophie and Tim’s impending wedding, but over the idea of marriage in general.

Johnson deftly surfs her characters’ doubts and scruples, though she never plunges deep into their psyches. She writes of men and women who have little interest in rigorous self-reflection, which explains perhaps why they have opted to live in such a richly sensual setting as France. But buffeted by melodramatic winds, they never land long enough for us to feel meaningfully acquainted. As so often is the case these days, Le Divorce has proved more memorable than Le Mariage.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 11, 2000

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