Artillery of the nightie

LE DIVORCE by Diane Johnson, Chatto pounds 14.99

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?