February 2004

Janine Armin


L'Affaire by Diane Johnson

L’Affaire by Diane Johnson is the supermarket-romance novel-travel-magazine for the literate dreamer; an elegant potpourri set mainly in the Swiss Alps of the life and loves of the fashionable bourgeois. It will quite possibly be seen in theaters shortly, but the stylistic and formal nuances of fondue’s role in a conversation or the particular ennui suffered by the French when confronted with Americans and their obsession with noise production, might be overshadowed by a star-studded cast. Amy, the American protagonist, comes into extreme wealth after a dot-com success. She makes up for her lack of class by exporting herself to Paris, whereupon she is whisked off to the Alps by a French woman whom she hires to help ease her into Parisian life. And so the relatively classic American in Paris begins, without the literary virtuosity of Henry James, but with as much visual flair as Johnson’s previous work, Le Divorce.

As Amy assimilates comfortably into the myriad of European backgrounds the Alps hotel accommodates, she becomes caught up in the life of a young American boy whose sister has been hospitalized along with her husband due to a mysterious avalanche. Complications ensue. Her personal connection to the strife faced by the family is deemed inappropriate by Johnson’s uptight portrayal of the French. The French see Americans as money-hungry, and Amy fits the frame in her assistance with a family in which the husband, financially endowed, soon succumbs to his injuries. She is then caught up in a battle in which the French side of the family attempts to wield power over the American and vice versa. Amy’s loyalty to her nationality is pared against her conception of a reasonable course of action, caught in the midst of a family dispute in which she has no part, except as a friend to an exceptionally moral boy. This is about as far as the political slant goes, nationalism reduced to racially charged consumerism statistics.

The focus on American-French integration is typically cliché, but allows for character development in the area of spiteful insecurities among the various members of Amy’s newly formed social group. Although she receives romantic attentions from a charming British poet and has an affair with a robust German, she ultimately finds herself infatuated with a handsome French man who seems to detest her. This man is both married and in the midst of an affair himself, but he is treated with respect in the narrative in the spirit of true joie de vivre. This book is by no means a case for either morality or consistency, but suits its purpose as a loosely developed fantasy.

One of the most eloquently developed characters is that of the American boy who, having lost his sister and her partner to a coma, is forced to subsist on his own and take care of his baby brother. He is remarkably advanced for a boy his age, and is able to perceive the unfeeling nature of the hotel far beyond anyone else. It is unfortunate that he is not given more presence in the narrative. Although Amy assists him and lends him her affection she lacks his moral strength. The dynamic of their relationship enriches the narrative beyond the flaky veneer of a romance novel.

Like Le Divorce, L’Affaire lives up to its title in its depiction of the licentious Parisian lifestyle. The end comes as unexpected, not because it tests the readers clever perception of plot, but rather because it simply doesn’t fit. However, this is not expected of a book like this, one would assume that a sequel is intended from the outset. Although the theme is consistent and lexically identifies with its title, it fails to achieve cohesive presence, but rather passes as an excuse to avoid a gripping plot. It instead opts for the well-packaged presentation, which signals the start of an American in Paris franchise. Ultimately the novel considers, in a long winded fashion, whether an American can ever truly fit into the Parisian lifestyle. The proposal is left relatively open, but offers an enticing look at a parade of extramarital affairs given license by the luxurious lifestyle of the hotel. Johnson gives us a glimpse of paradise in excess.

L'Affaire by Diane Johnson
E. P. Dutton
ISBN: 052594740X
352 Pages