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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?