Picks and Pans Review: Le Divorce
Isabel (Izzy) Walker, like Henry James's Isabel Archer (The Portrait of a Lady), is an innocent abroad. A film school dropout, she has come from Santa Barbara to Paris ostensibly to help her pregnant stepsister Roxeanne, in fact to delay getting her life in gear. But Roxy, a part-time poet, and full-time romantic and Francophile, needs more help than Izzy had calculated.
Roxy's husband, Charles-Henri, a man of "resolute insouciance," has fallen in love with another woman—a married Czech sociologist named Magda, to be precise—and wants a divorce. Between tending Roxy's 3-year-old daughter Genie, doing odd jobs for other expatriates and trying to make sense of the French, Izzy embarks on an affair with Roxy's uncle by marriage, a political-pundit boulevardier who has a large following, endless charm, almost 50 years on his fresh-faced California mistress, and a wife.
In much the way that Alison Lurie wittily played a disintegrating marriage against the backdrop of the Vietnam War in The War Between the Tates, so does Johnson (a National Book Award finalist) use the battles between the Serbs and Croats as counterpoint and commentary in Le Divorce, which deals glancingly with the long-running conflict in Bosnia. And like Lurie's work, Le Divorce is a terrifically adroit comedy of manners. Witness Izzy's encounter with her future ex-brother-in-law: " 'La petite Isabel? ça va?' I am tall, but in France anything is petite if you want it to seem negligible, like a petit problem or a petit invoice...." Unfortunately the novel runs out of steam at the end, with matters resolved in what seems too perfunctory a fashion. But for the most part Le Divorce is le champagne cocktail with more than a petit kick. (Dutton, $23.95)