In her 1987 Pulitzer Prize-nominated Persian Nights, set in pre-Khomeini Iran, Diane Johnson uses the cultural clash between visiting Americans and native Iranians as the backdrop for showcasing one woman’s liberation from her marriage. In a similar way, Johnson’s Le Divorce (1997) traces the narrator Isabel Walker’s search for identity as she, a native Californian, learns to enjoy and appreciate Paris. Although Johnson does create some wonderful cultural juxtapositions for her heroine to learn from, the novel is deeply flawed because of Johnson’s episodic, often unprepared-for plot deviations, as well as inappropriate shifts in tone and stance in the narrator’s voice.
Told from the perspective of an ironic and laid-back Isabel, the book strongly resembles a film. Since the narrator is also a film school dropout, this seems appropriate and gives the text a metafictional edge. One senses that Isabel crafts, then edits the film reel of her experience in Paris. She uses many long shots early in the text—vivid descriptions of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and even areas of EuroDisney which figure prominently in the final scenes of the novel. These long, panning looks at typical and not so typical Paris give the text something of a tour- guide feel. Yet Isabel also presents darker treatments of the interiors of places—homes, cafés, and museums—and the people who inhabit them. To further enhance the sense of filmmaking, Johnson uses apt quotations to begin each chapter; these serve as a type of dubbing, making sure the reader- viewer understands the forthcoming action and its significance.
While much of this description seems warranted and adds flair to Johnson’s story, she doggedly persists in maintaining this method of randomly juxtaposing a scene against another for its visual content alone. Often, Isabel’s own growth and development, the basic message of the story, gets lost in the haphazard manipulations of Johnson’s camera-eye plotting. These episodic shifts make much of Le Divorce difficult to follow, particularly in the opening few chapters and the latter half of the novel. For example, at the beginning of the work, Johnson introduces a wide-ranging cast of characters, then has Isabel spend considerable time discussing nuances of her young French lovers and an American woman who studies and dislikes everything that is French, yet these characters fade to the background, never to reappear. Like Isabel, the reader is forced to look at all things without knowing their relative importance to the unfolding story. Eventually, however, the rather arbitrary threads Johnson uses to begin the novel fall to the side to allow for what appears to be the main plot, Isabel’s discovery of her own worth and its place in her newly adopted city.
Isabel first arrives in Paris to stay with her newly pregnant stepsister Roxanne (Roxy) de Persand, an expatriate American poet married to a Parisian painter, Charles Henri. Although originally sent to Paris so she could be “straightened out” by the more mature and pragmatic Roxy, Isabel soon finds herself in a curious situation. The more stable Roxy begins to fall apart as she faces the struggles of a mother deserted by her husband for the love of another married woman, Magda Tellman. Roxy refuses to accept her situation and does not even discuss it with her husband’s family, the grand de Persands, whose country estate Isabel, Roxy, and Roxy’s daughter, Gennie, continue to visit every Sunday.
Always seen by their parents as the weaker of the two girls, Isabel suddenly finds herself emotionally adrift in a foreign city whose inhabitants speak a language she barely understands. Isabel blossoms under these circumstances, however, even as Roxy continues to fall apart, her strength sapped by her pregnancy and her complete inability to act in her crisis. Even after she learns that she must consider a divorce, Roxy persists in believing that everything will work itself out. Isabel alone seems to recognize the impossibility of reconciliation.
During these months of her sister’s unraveling, Isabel begins to assume some responsibility not only for herself but also for the lives of her sister and her niece Gennie. She becomes one of Gennie’s caretakers, sometimes protecting her from her sister’s moodiness. She also works at several odd jobs—aerobics instructor, dog walker, personal secretary—around the city, using each contact to observe and absorb the culture. These forays, however, do not show her all the things she needs to know about Paris. Even as she begins to feel more confident in her personal projects, she still feels alienated. Unlike many of the expatriates she encounters, Isabel refuses to accept a sideline...
(The entire section is 1943 words.)