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From Isabel Archer to Carrie Bradshaw, Paris has always exerted a powerful grip over the imaginations of romantically minded Americans. The city of the coup de foudre and coupe des glaces, it's where they hope to be inducted into the mysteries of love, lingerie and culture-with-a-capital-C. The author of two previous French-American novels, Le Divorce and Le Mariage, Diane Johnson has, with L'Affaire, again pulled off a waspish comedy of manners that follows the Jamesian progress of a well-meaning American through the salons of the haute bourgeoisie.
Johnson's latest heroine is Amy Hawkins, a fabulously wealthy dotcom entrepreneur who has left her California home for a crash course in "self-improvement". Knowledgeable about corporate buy-outs, she wants to learn about music and art - and, more importantly, her "potentiality" for passion. The suspicion that she might be a "stable, contented, commonsensical person with no depths" is her "greatest fear".
The initial setting for Amy's reinvention is the discreetly de luxe Hotel Croix St Bernard, an Alpine resort that attracts minor European royalty and the seriously rich. Soon Amy is sharing après-ski banter and cooking lessons with an Austrian baron named Otto; Emile Abboud, a startlingly handsome television intellectual; and the chic Marie-France Chatigny-Dove. Anti-American sentiment is high. The Europeans even blame the recent avalanches on "vibrations from low-flying American warplanes".
Among the first victims of these avalanches are two guests: Adrian Venn, a British publisher, and his American wife, Kerry. Amy soon steps in to take care of Harry, the couple's infant son, and Kerry's 14-year-old brother. Her involvement triggers a complicated inheritance dispute among Venn's many offspring.
Johnson draws the French, British and American contingents - who meet first at the chalet, and then in Paris - into ever-decreasing circles of legal, sexual and familial connection. Doors slam; dressing-gowned men creep down corridors in a sophisticated farce that revels in cultural clashes and misalliances. Amy's sentimental education moves convincingly from the absurd to the sublime.
Aventure is the word the French would more commonly use for an extra-marital affair, but Johnson's Austen-esque preoccupations with property, family and etiquette make affaire the mot juste here. Whether an affair, or an adventure, this literary dalliance is one to remember.
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