Diane Johnson: American in Paris

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Le Divorce. Le Mariage. L'Affaire. If that little string of titles strikes you as domestic drama in reverse it's probably because, with every book, Diane Johnson knits back, burrows a bit deeper. She's our Edith Wharton of expat life.

"I never gave two thoughts to France!" she claims, until she was on her way across the continent and surfaced between Metro rides at the Place de la Concorde. It was winter. Dusk. There had been a light snowfall. And, well . . . voilĂ .

At the time, she was married to her first husband. It took a second, John F. Murray, a professor of pulmonary medicine, to actually get her there. "John had been wanting to live in Paris for a long time. I was merely the trailing wife."

In 1995, after two sabbaticals, they decided to buy an apartment and spend half the year there, the other half in San Francisco. She was 61. He was almost 70. "I felt disoriented at first," she says, "a stranger in both places." But eventually she learned how to transport the cats, maintain two households, live like a local on both sides. "Initially, I resisted American friends, but not for long. I quickly understood I could never be truly Parisian. I decided to use my powers of observation instead. Look around."

That decision was transformative. She had been writing mordant little essays for the New York Review of Books. She had come up with the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." And she had written a number of novels that had garnered solid reviews, among them The Shadow Knows, a highly regarded mystery, but she had never really connected with a broader readership. Her characters in Paris did that for her. She became known for novels about modern American women adrift, dealing with life's vicissitudes. Isabel Walker of Le Divorce can be seen as a lighter version of Henry James's Isabel Archer. Le Mariage is Anna Karenina redux.

Her most recent book is Lulu in Marrakech, a spy adventure that catapults her CIA heroine to Morocco. Some critics have lamented the departure from Paris. But Madame is undaunted. She intends to send characters of future novels across the channel to England and elsewhere.

Now at work on a book of essays, Men on Top, about powerful males she has known, Johnson is a whirlwind of caprice and energy. What herb do you suppose she's found on those market jaunts to Place Maubert?

-- Marie Arana

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