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[463] Le Divorce – Diane Johnson

” Anyone could divorce, most people did, but most people, by the time they did divorce, devoutly wanted to be rid of the other person, the person they cannot imagine having loved and slept with, whose repulsive traits are now an embarrassment, reflecting as they do one’s own bad judgment, immaturity, or star-crossed role as one of nature’s victims. Roxy, from her tone, was being torn, uprooted, insulted, battered in her heart by the one-sided death of love. ” (Ch.13, p.92)

Le Divorce has the tell-tale signs of being chick lit: the prototype of a young female heading to Paris, the soap opera-esque style, the sublime cover design, and the title itself. Apropos of the title, the novel revolves around a divorce, how it takes on a sinuous course, as family descends on Paris from California to lend support, to make war on the in-laws, and ultimately spirals down to a murderous dénouement. Le Divorce has its chick lit element by in large it’s a comedy of manners and morals made all the more entertaining by the collision of two cultures in Paris.

I had suddenly come to feel that California was not interesting, not because there were not books and lovers and jobs, concerts and Frederick’s of Hollywood, but someone had to show you where to find and how to consume these cultural advantages. (Ch.22, p.156)

Dropped out of film school, Isabel Walker goes to visit her sister in Paris. Roxy is a poet whose marriage to a Frenchman has assured her of a coveted position in high society. Roxy’s cultural disloyalty and detachment have always puzzled her family. Despite her cultural progress and improved disposition, achieving a Frenchness that surpasses that of the French, her marriage does not bode well. Her husband walks out on her, claiming he has found the love of his life in a married Czech woman.

A part of my own pleasure, apart from the reliable physiologic one, arose from just this difference in our ages and conditions. That which had worried me before now intensified the odd passion I felt. (Ch.18, p.124)

Whereas Roxy contrives to assimilate and to strip of her Americanness, the free-spirited Isabel, despite some initial insecurity and mistrust, embraces the adventures thrust upon her. She also gradually becomes aware that a chasm of misunderstandings and basic attitudinal differences lies beneath the cordial facade of Franco-American relationships. Her clandestine affair with an elderly uncle of Roxy’s husband sheds insight in self-honesty and reality of different worlds. Further complicating the matter is a heirloom of a painting Roxy has brought abroad with her. The enhanced value of this painting whose ownership is in dispute introduces a new element of cupidity and greed into the normal rancor of divorce.

It had not escaped me that when they all spoke of what had happened—to the press, to their friends, to the anxious, the shocked, the religious, there merely curious—they said l’américain. They did not say that Charles-Henri had been killed by his mistress’s husband. No, they always said he had been killed by un américain. (Ch.39, p.294)

Despite the regrettable manner by which the novel reaches its end, like a badly edited film, Le Divorce is well-crafted. Johnson’ writing, imparted with her ironic wit, is not to be faulted. Not only does she explore family dynamics to a full extent, she also achieves reflections of morality as perceived on both sides of the Atlantic. The pull of culture—its subjectiveness and prejudice—could eclipse truth, if truth ever exists.

307 pp. Plume Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

3 Responses

  1. I probably would have read the book jacket and looked at the cover and fled from this one but thanks to your recommendation I would not hesitate to read it.

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