By Diane JohnsonDutton
For accuracy's sake, Diane Johnson's new novel should probably be titled Le Mort, since its clever complications—affaires both legal and sexual—all proceed from the demise, under an avalanche in the French Alps, of spry, seventyish Adrian Venn. Over the past few decades he has fathered four children by three different women—one French, one British, and, most recently, one American, Kerry, who is temporarily comatose from her own brush with the avalanche.
Johnson assembles a gaggle of potential heirs and amoureux inside the Hôtel Croix St. Bernard, and it is mostly through the earnest, well-intentioned gaze of one of the guests, Amy Hawkins (a wealthy California dot-commer, not quite thirty), that we perceive them: self-pitying Posy (Venn's British daughter) and her sunny French half-sister, Vee; Kip Canby, Kerry's teenage brother; Robin Crumley, an unexpectedly heterosexual British poet; and Emile Abboud, Vee's sexy French-Tunisian husband, whose success as a TV talking head is assured by his loathing of all things American.
The uncertain cause of the avalanche and the Orient-Express feel of the shared hotel push the novel toward the mystery genre, and conflicting French and English inheritance laws induce some fine cross-cultural commotion. An element of farce—zippy but not Feydeau-frantic—keeps everything energized.
Johnson must have begun this book—the third in a loose trio with Le Divorce (1997) and Le Mariage (2000)—before the run-up to the Iraq War, but L'Affaire, which more than earns its epigraph from Giraudoux ("The destiny of France is to irritate the world"), could scarcely feel more courant. Poor Amy, who longs to improve herself with further knowledge of all things French, finds herself instead "being made to stand for all Americans." Her belief in cooperation and her somewhat blundering generosity make her the variant of a familiar utopian type, an American character whose lineage stretches back through The Bostonians to The Blithedale Romance. And, of course, her manner and money make her as ripe for the picking as Daisy Miller. Before things are over, she'll have received the attentions of Paul-Louis, a ski instructor; Otto, a property-developing baron; and Emile, the pseudo-intellectual jerk.
For all her appeal, Amy cannot match the charms of Le Divorce's Isabel Walker. Johnson herself seems to know this; she won't entrust her new leading character with the first-person narration she gave to the earlier heroine, also a Californian, whose combination of shrewdness and okay-whatever insouciance was a particular pleasure. (Careful readers will spot Antoine de Persand, one of L'Affaire's lawyers, as a direct link to Le Divorce, whose Merchant Ivory adaptation reached theaters in August.)
Still, L'Affaire is full of tip-top invention—CNN arrives to speak with a post-comatose Kerry about the Joan of Arc vision she may have had prior to the accident—along with Johnson's always felicitous description (Vee, with her "tendencies to happiness," has "the fair ringlets and wide blue eyes of putti in paintings"). The novel seems oddly more confined when it forsakes the alpine hotel for Paris, and at the end it packs its bags rather hastily, leaving some minor plot lines sticking out like socks. But these flaws are of little consequence. Diane Johnson has a lightness of touch that has nearly disappeared from literary fiction, comic or otherwise. What a pleasure to be hit with her fluffy, sparkling avalanche, instead of the usual ton of bricks from almost anybody else.