Monday, June 15, 2009
I loved Diane Johnson’s three earlier books about American expatriates in France: Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L’Affaire. All three were funny, original, compelling, and delivered laser-like critiques of both French and American culture. Johnson writes with a distinctive breezy style that belies her sharp observations and subtle characterizations.
I was really excited to discover that Johnson had a new book, Lulu in Marrakech. Oooo, I thought, let’s see what she does with the French expatriate community in Morocco. Alas, this one did not measure up to the previous three.
Johnson’s portrait of the French, British, and American expat society in Marrakech is as good as anything she’s written, and most of her characters don’t disappoint. Unfortunately, the problem lies with Lulu. At the center of each of Johnson’s three previous novels is a woman who lives in both worlds. In Le Divorce this woman is Isabel, an American who is staying with her sister in Paris, as the sister divorces a Frenchman; in Le Mariage it’s Anne-Sophie, a young Frenchwoman who is marrying an American journalist; and in L’Affaire it’s Amy, an American business woman who becomes entangled with a complicated French family and the even more complicated French system of inheritance.
Lulu, the live-in girlfriend of a British businessman in Marrakech has this role in the new book, but for some reason that wasn’t enough for Johnson and she had to go and make Lulu an undercover CIA agent as well. It just feels wrong. It feels forced and artificial, and to top it off, Lulu is a terrible spy. She makes all kinds of mistakes and hardly accomplishes anything. I just didn’t think it worked, having Lulu bounce back and forth between providing piquant social commentary and participating in botched rendition assignments. The New York Times didn’t think it worked, either.
(Book 22, 2009)