The novel is about a young woman's partial passage into adulthood. Because most of the events involve French people, French customs, and even French food, a second theme, Franco-American culture clash, is interwoven with the first. A third theme is the ambiguous nature of human motives and emotions. Isabel's recognition of this is part of her maturation, but it underlies the narrative so deeply that it can be seen as a separate theme.
When the story opens, Isabel Walker, a college dropout, has not yet found any direction for her life. She has vague ambitions of writing a screenplay. Like other young American visitors before her, she comes to Paris hoping it will "buff off the rough edges" of her education and make her more sophisticated. The visit is also a good way to avoid making decisions about her future. It is only by chance that Isabel arrives at her sister's apartment the day after Roxy's husband has left. Roxy goes into an emotional tailspin, but Isabel continues to be viewed as the one who needs help with her life. Their parents think so, Roxeanne hints at it more than once, and the Persands treat Isabel kindly, but as if she were very young and naive.
Naturally Isabel feels some resentment, but she goes on blithely exploring Paris. She struggles with the French language; she probes the mysteries of French cuisine; she finds small jobs working for fellow Americans, who offer their own explanations of strange behavior and of political issues. After some weeks, she tells herself that she has learned much, and indeed she has. For the first time, Isabel has a life of the mind. She reads Sartre and obscure European authors whose very names would have formerly struck her as funny. Growing up in California, all she needed to attract young men was to be pretty and available; now she discovers the power of also being charming and au courant. It is not that she could not have learned such things in America, but she did not. As a pretty California girl, Isabel found it easier to drift on the surface of shallow commercial and youth culture.
Yet many surprises still await her. Although she comes through in a crunch—getting her sister to the hospital after the suicide attempt—no one knows if she will be able to meet the demands of adult life, and even Isabel herself is not so sure. Only when, months into her visit, a cabinet minister talks to her, does she feel she is wearing "a plausible expression of sentience" and perhaps can manage to continue to do so. As the narrative ends, she decides to stay in France a bit longer, because she feels her cross-cultural education is not complete. And while she stays she will not...
(The entire section is 1087 words.)