Artillery of the nightie

LE DIVORCE by Diane Johnson, Chatto pounds 14.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Here we have the familiar and honourable theme of the collision of old and new-world cultures. Self-avowed Californian beach-bunny Isabel arrives in Paris to help her sister through the last months of pregnancy and a wrecked marriage. Despite knowing no French and being extremely dim, she is immediately offered lots of undemanding work and welcomed into the American expatriate community. Soon she has fallen in love with an older Frenchman, statesman and uncle to her sister's faithless husband.

After six months, she has acquired a dazzling array of lacy underwear, a handbag embarrassingly known as a Kelly, and a relish for all aspects of Parisian life. She also knows some French expressions of a handy sexual nature. The most printable include tombeur (a seducer) and artillerie de nuit (the suspenders, etc). The forces of darkness loom in the background. Images of Bosnia flicker across the television screen, there is an attempted suicide, a corpse in the dustbin, a hostage drama, but nothing bothers Isabel too much. The children are released from the gunman in the tower and she's off with them at once for hamburgers and milkshakes.

Her lover dumps her, but there's another in a day or two. She has learnt to look like a French girl, she has read some European literature and she amuses people by cutesy behaviour; she even tries to be cutesy with the reader by going on about her "stomachaches" and her headstrong, wide-eyed ingenue ways. In fact, she is self-obsessed, callous and pert; this is unfortunate, as she is the book's narrator and we are obliged to look through her eyes at its essential subject-matter, the cultural differences between America and France.

Many of these observations are too complex and subtle to have emerged from Isabel, but once one has decided not to care about this, it is all very enjoyable. The novel simply provides a framework, with family gatherings provoking the most choice reflections. "`In America too, people are often cruel to cats,' I assured him, though I had learned that it did not ingratiate you with the French to claim to share their social problems. This challenges either their belief that their problems are worse, or their belief that American ones are so much worse that a comparison is insulting."

There is a rare moment of poignancy when Isabel's parents arrive and she feels shame for her mother whose suit, "a normal Californian blue, was just a shade too blue". Nor do the parents understand sumptuous French roast chicken, "cheap food in Santa Barbara". This lunch, while fairly obviously a set-piece, provides one of the best lines in the book: "We are thinking of going sea-kayaking in Patagonia."

Meals, property laws, the family, shopping habits, smoking, sugarcubes, beggars, hunting, the wily Frenchwoman and her petits soins, furniture, Catholicism, the effect of a rosewater tissue on internal lubrication - it's all there, mostly gentle, sometimes sharp, but entirely amiable. The Parisian background is vividly drawn: the falling of leaves, miraculous to a Californian, the statues blackened by rain looming through winter fog, the ornate entrances to the Metro.

But the novel itself becomes tedious. There are too many characters, some of whom have no part at all to play. There are too many plots depending on coincidence and Isabel's dimness. The moments of drama lack tension and impetus, and people react unconvincingly. Tragedy is grafted on to frivolity in an arbitrary and distasteful manner. There are occasional oddities in the text, there are misprints and omissions and some ugly sentences - Isabel is "hoping to get some of my rough Californian edges buffed that the University of South California had failed to efface".

Each chapter bears a portentous epigraph from a French writer. This lends an air of pretension, which is intensified by phrases like "the romance of political morality" (Isabel starstruck by her lover's TV appearances) and the suggestion that "Americans come to France to escape the moral obligations of their reality". There is no resonance here from James, Fitzgerald or Hemingway. This book reads like a rushed job, a souffle which has subsided through overexposure. Diane Johnson is a highly respected American writer who in the past has been shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Just a bad-hair day.