(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The final installment in Diane Johnson’s trilogy about the clash of American and French cultures, L’Affaire has as its protagonist Amy Hawkins, a wealthy young American woman who is a stranger to European culture. Like Henry James’s Daisy Miller, her personality prompts her to act precipitously, with disastrous results. Unlike Daisy Miller, she is not destroyed by her encounter but does remain clueless about the world in which she travels.

Having reaped a considerable fortune when her Internet company was bought out, she determines, with American optimism and naïveté, to undertake a “personal program of self-perfection,” partly because of her sense of guilt about her good fortune. Johnson’s elaboration reflects her ambivalent attitude toward Amy: “Humbly, she would seek mastery of deferred skills like skiing, cooking, and speaking French.” At once satiric and somewhat sympathetic, Johnson demonstrates by the novel’s end that Amy has not realized her ambitious goals.

At Valméri, a ski resort, Amy learns that an avalanche has occurred and that Adrian and Kerry Venn have been seriously injured. Kip, Kerry’s fourteen-year-old brother, is thrust into the role of baby-sitter to the Venns’ young son, Harry. When it becomes obvious that Adrian is near death, his heirs arrive and proceed to squabble about his care. Trevor Osworthy, Adrian’s English attorney, urges that he be returned to England, where his estate will be settled by English law; his will, in which the bulk of his fortune will go to Kerry, will be observed. Under French law, most of Adrian’s estate goes to his children, legitimate and illegitimate, with very little funding for Kerry. Over the objections of Adrian’s physicians, Amy finances Adrian’s flight to England, where he promptly expires.

While Kerry remains comatose, the bickering begins over Adrian’s estate, most of which is in France and therefore subject to French law. Adrian’s daughter Posy, who seeks financial security, wants the publishing business and the chateau sold so that she can have her share. Her brother Rupert, however, wants to take over the publishing house and so opposes its sale. The interests of Victoire, Adrian’s other daughter, are represented by her husband Emile, also intent on the sale of the estate. No one seems interested in young Harry’s portion. At this point, the intrepid Amy again intervenes and makes plans to buy the estate, where she believes all the offspring can live in harmony. Given Victoire’s knowledge of the Posy/Emile affair, this seems incredibly naïve.

Amy seems to be living proof of the idea that a little learning is a dangerous thing. Despite her Stanford University education and her business success, Amy has retained a belief in the ideas of P. Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist who believed that cooperation, rather than Darwinian competition, led to progress. Anarchy and cooperation are not appropriate tools in the capitalistic society in which Amy prospered. With a vague intent to better humankind, Amy is set on establishing an international foundation devoted to the propagation of Kropotkin’s ideas. Johnson undercuts Amy’s idea by noting that Amy once thought about placing a copy of Kropotkin’s book in every hotel room, just as the Gideons do with the Bible. Like most of her goals, it is unrealized.

In her quest for self-improvement Amy attempts to read French literature and carries a copy of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black, 1898) with her, but she does not make much progress with the novel. (She also reasons, “how hard could it be?” to learn German, because it is related to English.) Similarly, she enrolls in a class in French cooking and comes to believe that “she could become a brilliant cook,” but only attends class sporadically. She attends a combined lecture and sales pitch on linens and buys some expensive ones without knowing exactly what she will do...

(The entire section is 1615 words.)