The opening scene is perfection. We meet the eponymous heroine of Diane Johnson’s latest novel, “Lorna Mott Comes Home,” as she rides in the back of a taxi, en route to the train station in Lyon. Lorna, an American woman “of a certain age,” asks the driver to stop so she can observe the aftermath of a mudslide that has unearthed coffins, bursting them open and exposing corpses, bones and “a huge, sticky hillock of treacherous clay” in the village of Pont-les-Puits, where she has lived with her French husband for 20 years.
The husband — one Armand-Loup — is a serial philanderer who most recently has been discovered having an affair with the wife of the local boulanger. Lorna has finally had enough. She is heading home to San Francisco, where she hopes to reestablish herself professionally. “She would prove, to herself if to no one else, that you can make a new life at any age.” The symbolism of the graveyard upheaval does not escape her: “Sometimes the metaphorical significance of a random event startles with its application to your life,” Lorna thinks.
This is Johnson’s 12th novel and 18th book. She is perhaps best known as the author of “Le Divorce,” which was made into a 2003 film starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts. It’s one of her three books to be named a finalist for a National Book Award; Johnson is also a two-time Pulitzer finalist whose books are often compared to those of Edith Wharton and Henry James.
All of which is to say that a review of the latest entry to this 87-year-old author’s body of work arguably ought to have less to do with deconstructing the plot or gauging the likability of the characters than with heralding the arrival of another of her smart comedies of manners.
Fans of Diane Johnson will not be disappointed. Those new to her work might best approach these pages through the lens of a social anthropologist who studies the lives of characters prone to problem-solving by crisscrossing the Atlantic. “Many things that would seem implausible for regular people seemed easier for the rich, a truth beyond question,” she writes, an observation that proves central to events in this book.
Money plays a key role in this novel, set during the financial crisis of the late aughts. Lorna and her adult children are all struggling to some degree. “They all, the whole family, badly needed money.”
Lorna’s oldest daughter, Peggy, a frumpy divorcée, sells crafts, such as personalized dog collars, on the Internet, and has just signed, in desperation, papers for a predatory loan. Lorna’s youngest child, Hams, has a “rumpled, bag-person aspect,” and lives with his pregnant wife in “a rathole” in Oakland. Another son, Curt, had been on the cusp of launching a start-up when a bicycle accident left him in a coma; when he emerges after five months he disappears, leaving a wife, 4-year-old twins, and a huge mortgage.
Lorna would like to help her children, but her means are limited. She is variously described as “bravely hard up,” as having suffered a “slightly abject, poor-but-genteel comedown,” and as “the only one who truly had no money and had stupidly left the family silverware behind in France.” As Lorna hunts for an apartment, frets about whether a restaurant is chic enough, throws a cocktail party and ponders beauty treatments, I found myself wishing for a glimpse of her year-end Fidelity statement to be sure she is spending responsibly and to help her forge a coherent retirement plan.
You don’t have to like a character to relate to her. Although it’s easy to empathize with Lorna as a woman in her “late fifties, early sixties” with two failed marriages, who feels invisible and displaced as she struggles to reestablish herself as a lecturer and art historian, she is something of a cold fish. She makes unkind observations about Peggy’s weight and fashion sensibility, and has similarly unsympathetic opinions about her daughter-in-law, Donna. Though Donna now dresses like “a Pacific Heights matron,” Lorna notes that she used to look like “a girl in the Hispanic soaps . . . all gold crosses on chains and low-cut pink blouses” — an observation that says more about Lorna than it does about her daughter-in-law.
Perhaps Johnson’s remark about soaps is her private wink — this antic romp is a soap of sorts, one with age-old themes. Lorna is caught between two worlds, looking for happiness. In France she would “always be the awkward American woman . . . never, ever, getting the cheeses straight.” Home is problematic, too, full of all the things she hated: “the automobile, her dingy apartment, traffic, the immediacy of family cares, crime, a new hairdresser, the mystery of her finances, the lack of response to her professional queries, and the absence of trains.”
Sure, there are larger worries in the world, but we root for Lorna all the same, and are heartened that she finds, in the end, a modicum of peace.
Susan Keselenko Coll’s sixth novel, “The End of Day Report,” is forthcoming in 2022.
Lorna Mott Comes Home
By Diane Johnson
Knopf. 336 pp. $28
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