"A delectable entertainment--a novel that feels completely effortless and charming." --The New York Times
In Diane Johnson's L'Affaire, Amy Hawkins, a smart, pretty Palo Alto girl who made herself a dot-com fortune, goes to France to get a sheen of sophistication and, perhaps, to have an affair that will ruffle her all-too-steady heart. Amy starts her quest in the French Alps in the town of Valmeri, amid an assortment of aristocrats and ski enthusiasts.
When two of the hotel's guests, esteemed English publisher Adrian Venn and his much younger American wife, Kerry, are swept away by an avalanche, Adrian's children--young, old, legitimate, illegitimate--assemble in Valmeri to protect their interests.
Amy, already suspect because she is American, steps in to assist, and unintentionally sets in motion a series of events that spotlight ancient national differences, customs, and laws. Filled with love, sex, death, and travel, L'Affaire is Diane Johnson at her very best in a comedy of contemporary manners played out between the sexes as they stumble over cultural barriers and slam into cultural stereotypes.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
August 31, 2004
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from L'Affaire by Diane Johnson
"A delectable entertainment--a novel that feels completely effortless and charming." --The New York Times
All of Europe had been fascinated for the past few days by televised images of avalanches descending in the wake of storms on certain ski resorts and pretty villages in the Alps. Caught for the screen by cameramen safely distant, the snowy plumes were as beautiful as waterfalls or clouds, and thrilling, too, in that it always stirs the human heart to watch nature assert her propensity for malicious destruction.
Despite the usual preventive measures taken with dynamite and seismograph, some ancient chalets were engulfed completely, some modern structures of concrete were imploded in a bizarre fashion never before studied. In one place, inhabitants were killed with the power of a tidal wave or volcano; in others, the possibility of life beating faintly in an air pocket under an eave stimulated massive rescue efforts organized from the Austrian, Italian, and Swiss Alpine patrols as well as the local French ones. Yet, with characteristic resolve, ski lifts stayed open when they could, and skiers, having booked their precious vacances d'hiver, still ventured resolutely out onto the slopes that were open.
Unaware for the moment of the dangers at the higher reaches, Amy Ellen Hawkins, a dotcom executive from Palo Alto, California, had defied the usual injunction never to ski alone. She was trying out new parabolics, an innovation since she had last been on the slopes, and she had thought she had time for a run or two while the light was good, even though the snow was already falling. In the several days she had been here, the terrible weather had mostly impeded any skiing at all, and now that her jet lag had worn off, she was too restless and eager to stay indoors any longer.
Amy was an experienced skier, but wished to be better. She had chosen the H�tel Croix St. Bernard in Valm�ri, France, for a couple of weeks' stay as part of a personal program of self- perfection, an almost superstitious way of placating the gods for her recent good fortune. Humbly, she would seek mastery of deferred skills like skiing, cooking, and speaking French, and she saw no reason she should not approach them with the discipline and effectiveness that had marked her career in the decade since she left college.
By the time Amy reached the top of the chair lift that swayed up the mountain above the hotel, the cell phones of the liftmen still higher above were crackling with warnings. Visibility had already deteriorated markedly, the new sort of ski turned out to have an independent wish to turn despite her, requiring an effort of understanding she had not expected, and the terrain was steeper than an intermediate/advanced slope would be at Squaw Valley, with strange intervals when she could not determine whether she was going down or up--not a whiteout exactly, but an eerie one- dimensional landscape that seemed to have no undulations or contours. A cool-headed person, she kept her nerve, reminding herself of the reassuring facts of gravity. If she was sliding, she must be going downhill, and she allowed her skis to carry her. Now, face stung with snow, she was just thankful to have finally made her way in the failing light down the difficult slope on which she had found herself and was stashing her skis by the entrance to the ski room at the H�tel Croix St. Bernard, shaken and sobered by this immediate lesson and suddenly aware of the reverberations of what sounded like dynamite in the distance.
She saw that though it was still early afternoon, many people had come in already, forty pairs of skis or more were wedged into the wooden grid, poles jammed into the deepening snow. (The amenities of the hotel included the van from the station, a ski room where boots were warmed, a technician, and the custom of arranging the guests' skis outside next to the ski run in the mornings.) Unlike Amy, the other guests seemed mostly to be Europeans and must know something about the weather that she had missed. She looked back at the slope she had just struggled down, now hardly visible in the snowfall, and it occurred to her she had narrowly escaped death.
"Miss Hawkins!" It was the man who had been referred to as "the baron" who was greeting her, scraping the snow-packed bottoms of his boots against his bindings and frowning at her. She knew who he was, but was startled that he knew her name. With her good memory for faces, she had already begun to sort out the people who had been in the hotel van with her coming up from Geneva, or in the ski room when she got outfitted. This was an Austrian, or maybe German, baron. Also in the ski room this morning had been an English publisher and his family, an American man--Joe, a pair of elderly women from Paris, and two Russian couples she had not spoken to. Most of the people at the hotel were French or Germans, mysteriously alien, to her great satisfaction.
"People have come in early," she said, feeling herself flush at being faced with this censorious person. Amy sometimes felt reticent, though she was not timid. Her success in corporate life had come about the way some actors who stammer and blush in private life come to power and authority onstage. In private, her sweet smile was found pliant and endearing. She was also modest and sociable and, now, surprisingly rich, as had happened to not a few in her same year at Stanford.
"Indeed. The warnings are posted everywhere." The baron rolled his eyes at the hopeless na�vet� of her observation, from his expression wondering if in behalf of local tourism he ought to take this woman in charge. "Didn't you see them? They're written in English as well as French." "Oh yes, of course, I hurried in, but I wasn't sure of the route," she said. She was still shaken by her adventure, and by the fact that she hadn't seen the warnings, though she had scrupulously read the posted times for closing of the lift she had been on, not wanting to miss the last ascent. She usually didn't make mistakes, it was a point with her. She was also a little irritated by his suggestion that signs would have to be written in English for her to understand them.
Of course that was more or less true. She was about to protest that, A. she could read French, somewhat, and B. thank you, but her tendency to reject authority didn't extend to ignoring posted warnings about avalanches, any more than sharks or riptides, she simply hadn't seen them. Instead, she said nothing, and smiled her pretty, candid smile.
"The pistes are plainly marked." His tone was still censorious. Her kind of beauty, he was thinking, was peculiarly American, the beauty lent to a face by an optimist's temperament. Optimism however unwarranted. He could see she was a person with high hopes. In looks she might also have been an Austrian m�dchen, with her thick braid of caramel-colored hair, bright cheeks, and a dimpled face of unusual sweetness. Her half-breathless alert quality must come from an awareness of the constant possibility that her high hopes could be dashed. It was essential in his line of work, property development, to be good at reading faces and perceiving dashed hopes.
The Croix St. Bernard was a cheerful, fashionably simple, family-run hotel with some of the affectations, and prices, of a grand one, quiet and discreet, standing apart to one side of the central pistes on a road of private chalets, distant from the apr�s-ski scene of the village itself. From hints given in the brochure, Amy had gathered that it was the choice of diplomats taking a break from Geneva, the occasional adulterous couple, well-off families with young children who like an early night, assorted Eurotrash eccentrics bored with the relentless pace found in the larger hotels, and above all, those who wanted to take the fabled cooking classes offered by the hotel's celebrated chef. All this she had inferred from the photographs and promotional material, and thus had chosen it for her stay, for the fun of mingling with people of a kind unknown to her. To be accurate, she didn't choose it so much as agree to it--it had been suggested by a Madame Chastine, a Parisian connection of Amy's friend Patricia, when Pat's aunt and G�raldine Chastine were both at Wellesley. Amy was disappointed that her two friends Pat Davis and Marnie Skolnik, who had been coming with her for the skiing and cooking, had cancelled, each for different reasons, leaving her to come alone. But she acknowledged to herself it was probably best in the long run, as without them she would concentrate better and learn more. There was also the fact that no one knew her here, so their disapproval would not count should she do something that might shock at home--a common justification for travel.
She was also glad no one here would know how well she was fixed. Though she was delighted with her money, it embarrassed her too; it had led to a modest celebrity in Palo Alto, and even to an extent in San Francisco, and she would not want here that odd sensation of being recognized even in a restaurant she'd never been to before.
Valm�ri itself was a conglomeration of chalets, luxurious hotels, cable cars, and Poma lifts slung across a narrow valley below Alpine peaks of stupefying grandeur. The architecture of local ski stations varied from the harsh rectilinear buildings of the International style to the kitschy pseudo- Swiss, which was the preferred, more expensive, and best-appointed option; Valm�ri was in the Swiss style, built by the English in the nineteen-thirties.
Amy and the baron stamped into the ski room, where the ski attendant was listening, frowning, into the telephone, and other skiers, ranged along the benches taking their boots off, seemed to be waiting in silence for some announcement from the television set in the corner. The rescuers being interviewed on television had an air of slightly self-conscious heroism, knowing their own lives to be endangered by the still unstable snow conditions and ongoing snowfall. Men in red parkas stood beside helicopters and patted Rottweilers on leashes. In other valleys, during this disastrous week, fourteen Austrians were known to be dead, an unknown number of Swiss, three in France so far, and thousands of tourists were expected to be pinned in the Austrian Alps by the weather conditions and blocked roads.
Amy waited politely until a Russian lady extricated her feet with a grateful sigh from her enormous orange boots and carried them off to the warming rack. The baron was now leaning in with the ski attendant at the telephone as if news would come with volume audible to bystanders. The atmosphere in the ski room, Amy now saw, was one of attending a collective fate, as at a soccer match. A flush of wonder and happiness filled her when she thought of the dreadful weather and the wonderful acts of community Europeans were capable of, with their evolved, socialized governments and sense of noblesse oblige--not that she wanted socialism in America. But she admired all these trilingual people hushed in their concern about the fate of motorists on the road to Valm�ri, though of course Americans in the same circumstances would be concerned too.
"They are afraid the road will collapse the other side of Les Menuires," said the ski man finally. Amy looked back outside but the sky was calm slate, against which thick distinct flakes gathered their numbers and danced off in a mounting wind without seeming to land on the already deep snowbanks.
"Is the storm worse? Is there something to do?" she asked the baron.
"No, no, there are road crews. But I have to get to Paris tonight on the six o'clock train." He frowned. Gallic shrug from the ski attendant, who called the baron "Otto." There was a general discussion of the condition of the local roads, making Amy feel amazingly lucky to be safely here.
Now the face of the young hotel manager, Christian Jaffe, appeared at the door. Something in his expression added to the hushed mood of expectancy that today replaced the ebullience with which skiers normally came in, pleased to have survived another day, high colored from the cold and exertion, laughing. Jaffe's pale face struck the others as it did Amy, as something luminous and portentous, his indoor pallor startling next to the bronzed cheeks of the skiers. Perhaps it was also the slightly mortuary effect of his business suit among the parrot-colored ski garments, yellow or red or blue, or in Amy's case pale silver-gray.
Talk fell off, but when Jaffe didn't see whom he was looking for, he ducked out again and the talk rose up, questions about the weather, something needing tightening, a boot problem, a cacophony of languages. The hill was closed now, lifts shut down, and there were rumors of other avalanches in the adjoining valley of M�ribel. Skiers stood in their boots in the lower lobby outside the ski room watching through the windows as the snow continued to fall. Two Russian girls spoke an odd, thick English to the ski man, English being the only language they had in common with him, in wheedling tones, cajoling a better forecast for tomorrow. Thinking of the baron, whom she had found out was Austrian, Amy resolved that after she learned French she would go on to German. A language related to English, how hard could it be?
The rumor had reached the H�tel Croix St. Bernard from its origins with an Italian ski patrolman assisting in the avalanche rescue efforts, that the new cataclysm today had been triggered by the vibrations from low-flying American warplanes on their way to refuel in Germany, presumably to do with the ongoing overflights of the Middle East, bombings of some unlucky Balkan country, or another of the numberless adventures the surly superpower was conducting. Such an airplane theory seemed plausible. Vapor trails were often seen to mar the sky above the snowy crags and silent peaks of Valm�ri, the noise sometimes catching in the canyons and reverberating like dynamite all the way to the lowest valley. The physics of vibration, intensely studied by the snow seismologists, without enhancing their ability to predict the action of a given snowfield, were perfectly consistent with this rumor. Skiers were often enjoined to silence as they traversed a treacherous slope beneath a fragile cornice. If a whispering skier could unsettle tons of snow, how much more could powerful jet engines? The planes were the major topic of conversation in the lobby, along with the rumor that a family staying at this very hotel had been among today's victims. As was the custom every Sunday, the management had invited all the guests for a glass of champagne before dinner. Amy, veteran of numerous compulsory corporate seminars on dressing for the message, had long ago conquered any concern about what to wear to cocktail parties; she had put on black pants and a blouse that she thought neither seductive nor dowdy, and brushed and rebraided her hair. She was reluctant to appear, by making too much effort, as if she was looking for men, since emphatically she wasn't; on the other hand, attention to appearance was a desirable form of social cooperation, a subject that interested her intensely in the abstract.
Drinks were served in the lobby, from a long table covered with a white cloth or by waiters from the dining room walking among the guests with little trays. A hot fire in the large fireplace drove people from its immediate vicinity to cluster nearer the door, where the owner, Chef Jaffe, and Madame Jaffe in her Tyrolean-style suit of loden-green, greeted and chatted, helping the guests to get to know each other, and trying to deal with anxious questions regarding avalanches.
This was the first general social occasion of the new week, so most people didn't know each other, and stood with expectant, cooperative smiles. Amy looked around. One or two little old ladies glowed with diamonds, making her think of cat-burglar movies. Over there, a very heavy Russian wife was astoundingly bemedalled, decorations up and down her bosom. Amy had her usual sense of cocktail party hopefulness, knowing intellectually that the room would be as full of fools and bores as any party, but always with the belief that among these particular people some would be worldly, kindly, and friendly, and that kindred spirits would emerge. Why wouldn't they? She struggled to suppress a surge of love for them--not these particular people, but for the powers of human organization, our gregarious natures, the kindliness of our impulses to share food and talk to each other, the sweetness of agreeing to dress up for others. Sometimes she saw these activities as products of the struggle for power, as Darwin might have, or at least Herbert Spencer, but for tonight she was touched by the sight of humans wishing to be liked by others and to make them lovely things to eat.
She saw this cocktail party and parties in general as aspects of mutual aid, a subject of her passionate interest since high school, when she had joined the Mutual Aid Club, an extracurricular activity frankly designed to embellish the chances of getting into good colleges, in this case by taking pets, small children, and CD players to old persons' homes to cheer the elderly residents. The faculty advisor was a Miss Steinway, and Miss Steinway had in her own youth come under the influence of the works of an old Russian anarchist, P. Kropotkin, whose idea was that contrary to the teaching of Darwin, the human species had progressed not through competition but through mutual aid; that this was true of other species, too, ants and baboons and all sorts of creatures; that whereas individuals might compete for food, successful species had insured survival by developing highly elaborate forms of cooperation, and that in imagining every being locked in a struggle for survival of the fittest, Darwin had it wrong or had been misinterpreted.
Amy had already decided that at the end of this European period of narcissistic self-improvement, she would establish and fund a foundation for propagating the ideas of Prince Kropotkin. But that was eventually. For now, she accepted a soft-boiled egg--no, it was an eggshell filled with eggy custard, with caviar on top--and smiled around her.
"Like Queen Victoria," a man said to her, with a kind of Kentucky accent, looking with her at the bemedalled Russian. She recognized him as the American who been in the van from Geneva with her. She had also seen him in the ski room, but he did not appear to ski. Anyhow, he would solve the other cocktail-party problem, whom to talk to, for one must not be standing by oneself, a rule he evidently also believed in, edging nearer. This man would do, attractive and open-looking. "Joe Daggart," he said.
She smiled at him. "I took an oath, coming over, not to talk to other Americans. Should I break it?"
"What have you got against Americans?" he asked.
"Well, nothing, naturally. It's just that I know them already," Amy said, noticing his glance at her shoes. "Since I am one, I want to meet other people. But I'll count you as an other."
He worked in Geneva, but often came here to stay, for the skiing and food. Companionably, they waded into the assortment of people, introduced themselves, smiled, agreed that the day had been unusual. It was disconcerting to notice that people switched into English when either she or Joe Daggart spoke, when they had been talking some other language to each other, but of course it was necessary, if she was to talk to them. Joe, she noted, could speak French. Her disadvantage strengthened her resolve to get to work on languages.
In general, everyone was nice, though there were one or two moments that surprised, even daunted. "Isn't it awful, so much smoking?" she had said at one point in a low voice to Joe. "Why aren't they all dead?"
"It's typical French bravado. Since Americans think it's bad for you, the French have to show us what sissies we are." He spoke loudly enough that all could hear, and looked around him combatively. A nearby woman took him up. "French cigarettes don't cause cancer, you know. Cancer is caused by the additives put there by the American tobacco companies. This is well known, only of course the tobacco companies don't allow this fact to be published in the United States."
"Really?" Amy wondered, thinking that it could even be true.
The speaker was a glittering woman with dark auburn hair, wearing high heels with her narrow evening pants, and she introduced herself as Marie-France Chatigny-Dov�. This conversation led directly to another faux pas on Amy's part.
"I think you are quite right, you two, to come in here as if nothing had happened. Of course it isn't your fault," said Madame Chatigny-Dov� presently.
Amy didn't understand what she was talking about, and her blankness must have shown. "The perfidy of American tobacco companies?"
"American planes yet again dropping things willy-nilly, not caring who might die on the ground," explained another woman, in a mid-European accent. "Quite an irony that one of the people buried in the snow actually was an American. I'm sure your pilots didn't think of that beforehand."
"The avalanche," said someone else by way of explanation, seeing Amy's baffled expression. Amy, somehow thinking they were joking, laughed good-naturedly. Her laughter produced an array of astonished expressions on every nearby face. Americans laughing at how they have killed innocent skiers! Yet again, they might have added, for no one had forgotten an Italian incident of some years before. The red-haired woman turned and hurried over to Baron Otto, as if appalled to be in the presence of someone as callous as Amy.
"Mon Dieu," other people said. Amy quickly understood her gaffe; these people seriously believed U.S. airplanes had set off an avalanche.
"It can't be true," she protested. "No one who knows anything about physics could believe ... I don't believe it." It occurred to her that loud noises were routinely used to set off avalanches. "There have never been avalanches this early in the season. How else can you explain it?" "I saw them myself, saw the cornice tremble just after they came over."
"It can't be true," Amy insisted, but people had moved on, turned away, withdrawn. She found that her heart was pounding irrationally. Why had she so stupidly laughed?
"If we live over here long enough, finally we come to appreciate other Americans," said Joe Daggart at her elbow. "Our jokes, shared status of pariah."
She turned to him gratefully, but what might have been a promising and instructive conversation was soon interrupted or augmented by the intrusion of another man, who now languidly strolled up to them. She had seen him in the lobby and guessed correctly from his height, purplish cheeks, and shock of pinkish-white hair that he was British.
"Robin Crumley," he said. "I couldn't help but overhear you speaking American. You know, divided from us by a common language."
She tried to guess his age--late forties or even fifty. He wore a sort of sagging pinstripe suit, and had a high, slightly quavery voice. He had said he was a poet, or perhaps he had said "the poet," but it was hard to imagine him saying his poems in that voice. Crumley dismissed the unpleasant little moment that had just passed. "Pay no attention to them, my dear. For all his vaunted rationality, the Frenchman is a compendium of received opinions, unlikely to think for himself." Amy smiled gratefully at this assurance. "I know the Venns," he added. "Him, slightly, a terrible business. He is an Englishman."
"Oh?" said Amy. She had not heard of the Venns.
"Quite surprised to see them here. I'm travelling with the Mawleskys. Prince de Mawlesky. Over there. Did you meet them?" He nodded discreetly toward a small couple standing at the drinks table, each of the pair with shining dyed black hair. Amy hadn't met them, but they had been pointed out--people had not failed to mention the hotel's small store of princes and barons. They had for Amy a sort of stagy unreality, making her think of Masterpiece Theatre. But of course these people weren't actors, they actually existed. Somehow there was a warming satisfaction to being in the same place as titled people, the better to verify the existence of European history, the reality of alternative social structures, the arbitrariness of being an American at all, when but for the discontent of some ancestor you might have been speaking French this minute, or Romanian or Dutch.
She herself might have been speaking Dutch; some of her ancestors were Dutch, back in the time of Peter Stuyvesant, though who knew what had been mixed in since. Her family had no tradition of remembering Europe at all, but in her Palo Alto set, European ancestors were somewhat unfashionable, and the idea of finding your European roots had been attacked as incorrect Eurocentricity, and worship of a pass� civilization of wicked colonialists; but she was interested in finding out about them. She hoped to combat the national failing of being too uninterested in history, though part of her agreed--why dwell on history when it couldn't change anything? It would be interesting to meet a prince, she decided, but what would you say to him?
"Where did you ski today?" she asked Mr. Crumley.
"Ski? Moi? I don't ski, dear, but I have a taste for the snow, a feeling for the magic mountain, for the health-giving properties of mountain air."
She wondered if he were ill. The idea cast him in a romantic light, a poet in the Alps for his health. He looked quite sound, if elderly. She wondered if he drank, which she had observed all English people to do quite a bit, at least the ones who came to Palo Alto. Robin Crumley swooshed two champagnes off a passing waiter's tray and handed one to her.
"And you, a Yank obviously, what brings you here?"
"How tiresome, it means you'll be away all day and you won't have lunch with me. However, some night you must join the Mawleskys and me for dinner. So hard about the Venns. Still, they are alive, if barely, and that's something. Of course, heaven knows for how long. Buried alive, always a fate for which I have had a particular dread. Skiing is for fools, really."