In Le Divorce, Diane Johnson delightfully recounts the adventures of two sisters from California who make a modern pilgrimage to the City of Light. Pregnant and abandoned by her French husband, Roxeanne Walker de Persand turns to her younger sister, Isabel, for support, while the powerful Persand family exerts subtle but firm control over her decision whether or not to divorce. Complicating matters is the disposition of a family heirloom, a painting in Roxy's possession that is suddenly discovered to be worth millions. In the midst of a variety of schemes, the stakes are suddenly raised by a crime of passion, disrupting everyone's motives and plans. Not since Edith Wharton penned her brilliant portraits of Americans abroad has an American novelist so perfectly captured the possibilities and perils of succumbing to the allure of Paris.
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August 18, 2003
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Excerpt from Le Divorce by Diane Johnson
If we do not find anything pleasant, at least we shall find something new.
I THINK OF life as being like film because of what I learned at the film school at USC. Film, with its fitful changefulness, its arbitrary notions of coherence, contrasting with the static solemnity of painting, might also be a more appropriate medium for rendering what seems to be happening, and emblematic too perhaps of our natures, Roxy's and mine, and the nature of the two societies, American and French. The New World and the Old, however, is too facile a juxtaposition, and I do not draw the conclusions I began with. If you can begin with conclusions. But I suppose we all do.
I am, as I said, Isabel Walker, a young woman abroad who, in several months in Paris, has learned enough to be considerably changed -- and is this not in fact the purpose of young Americans going abroad? To make them think of things they never thought of? I should explain who I was.
I had come to France planning to spend some months babysitting my pregnant sister Roxeanne's three-year-old, Genevi've (Gennie), reading books in French that I didn't expect to like much (had read a bit of Rabelais in school and thought it was disgusting, with its talk of farts and twats), and under the cover of being a help to Roxy, hoping to get some of my rough California edges buffed off that the University of Southern California had failed to efface. Leaving college (I had not actually graduated) ordinarily points one to the future, whereas France was not the future, it was only temporizing and staving off the day I would have to make real decisions. When I dropped out of college I became aware that the people in my world, usually so understanding and fond of me, had now a certain hardness of expression when asking me what I planned to do, as if they expected a serious and detailed answer, and my friends, as they awaited the results of their MCATs and LSATs, tended to avoid my eyes. I'll be working on my screenplay, I would tell them, and I'll be helping Roxy with her new baby, and I want to investigate the European film scene. But these statements only earned me a moment of silent scrutiny from my inquisitors before they changed the subject.
I arrived in Paris as scheduled -- it is now six months ago -- by coincidence the day after Roxy's French husband, Charles-Henri, walked out on her. I took a taxi from the airport, Roxy having explained that she didn't drive a car in France because she didn't want to take the time to go to traffic school. That seemed strange to me, since Roxy as a true Californian has been driving since she was sixteen. I couldn't even imagine a society where a young housewife wouldn't drive.