What makes Diane Johnson such a rewarding novelist (and travel writer) is her vivid, can-the-bullshit tone. Her new novel, "Le Divorce," is thick with frank observation -- about sex, manners, food, money -- of the kind that illuminates all of her work, and it lifts the novel high above those of most other mid-career American writers. A critic at heart, Johnson scorns flowery prose and aching "sensitivity," preferring to get her hands dirty poking around in the human condition. She's a treat to read.
"Le Divorce" is about two stepsisters from Southern California who wind up living in Paris. Roxy, the elder, is a poet who has married a Frenchman and has all but become French herself; Isabel is a college dropout (she's considering a film career) who comes to stay with her pregnant sister who was recently abandoned by her husband. But what "Le Divorce" is really concerned with, of course, is all manner of cultural clashes -- about what it's like to be thrown into another culture as if one "has been asked to jump the space between two roofs."
Isabel, the book's smart and brassy narrator, arrives in Paris "hoping to get some of my rough edges buffed off that the University of Southern California had failed to efface." Yet she doesn't immediately share her sister's "unqualified admiration for all things European," which makes her a tart and reliable tour guide. She dislikes France's dogshit problem, for example, and its odd music ("Let's face it, their music is not our music"), and its residents' "gaiety fetish," and a thousand other things. Yet, as her sister's life becomes more difficult, Isabel takes a dignified, much older French man as a lover and finds herself seduced in more ways than one.
There is some splendid writing here about Isabel's unusual (she admits) interest in this 70-year-old public intellectual: "I felt that to be made love to by a large, handsome, white-haired man with his large engine (or whatever word Milton would have used in 'Paradise Lost,' which I once had to read some of, horrible) and whose speaking might as well have been in tongues -- it was like being fucked by God." But then there is splendid writing everywhere. For example, here is Johnson on why there is less obesity in food-loving France: "I think it has something to do with the cooperation of the sexes in France, so unlike the state of war we have at home, where everyone gets fat from despair and hostility, in order to erotically deprive their loved ones."
"Le Divorce" is a banquet marred only by its final course -- a hasty and overblown ending that feels as if it belongs to an entirely different book. No matter. We're too busy digesting what's come before to be bothered by a final jolt of strangely spun sugar.