Commonwealth Club Book Award
National Book Award
Bay Area Reviewers Association Best Fiction
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.
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, Geneviève (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.
I had never before been abroad, unless you count Tijuana. Stumbling off the plane, I was too excited to be tired from the long flight. I felt an almost unpleasant thrill of apprehensiveness when the man stamped my passport, sort of as if I had been asked to jump the space between two roofs. Would I make it?
Everyone was speaking French. I had known they would be, of course, but had failed to anticipate my dismay. "Don't get too Frenchy," my father had told me when they took me to the plane. "Remember 'jus plain English's good enough for a 'Merican.' " This was a literary allusion to Kipling's "Why the Leopard Changed His Spots." ("Jus plain black's good enough for a---"-a word Margeeve had carefully whited out of our copy, and naturally we had never pronounced.) No chance of me changing my spots, though-I would never understand French, so I was now cut off from human communication.
My wits were in a turmoil of concern about the correct pronunciation of "Maître Albert," Roxy's street, lest the taxi man take me somewhere else altogether, and whether he would be surly, the way they are reputed to be, and, more generally, was coming to France a mistake and false detour in life? Roxy must have been watching from her window when I got there, or heard the rattle of the taxi in the street, and came out the big green wooden doors to meet me. She paid the taxi and kissed me. The taxi man leered amiably at both of us.
I was a little shocked by the stairwell of Roxy's apartment building, the peeling walls, the drab, sinking oaken treads. By now I have learned the beauty and value of seventeenth-century staircases and Louis Quinze furniture, but that first day, after the endless trip, I admit I had the feeling Roxy had come down in the world, from a California perspective, into a patch of bad luck. Or rather, I could imagine that our parents, especially Margeeve, would feel that way. I felt subtly co-opted by the secret that Roxy was living in reduced circumstances, here in this foreign place, and I wasn't to tell.
My sister Roxy-my stepsister really-is a poet. This is not an avocation but a vocation she trained for at the University of California at Irvine, and later at the University of Iowa. She has had a volume of poetry published by Illinois Wesleyan, and many poems in magazines. To tell the truth, I have always slightly resented the way our parents have encouraged her in this frivolous, totally unremunerative occupation, while urging me toward various careers such as accounting and personnel management-which means learning to interview people and assign them jobs-and computer service representative, to name only three of the peculiarly repellant occupations they, having heard of them for the first time in their lives, were willing to consecrate me to, so desperate were they to find something for which I might be fitted.
But I admire Roxy's poems, I don't mean otherwise. I wish I could find two screwy words and put them together so that they fizz, like she can. It always surprises me to read Roxy's poems, because in person, the way she talks, she just sounds like a normal person, you wouldn't have thought her thoughts would be odd and complicated.
There are people whose lives progress like one of those charts of heart attack, serrated peaks and valleys like shark's teeth, and my sister Roxeanne is such a person. I loved her from the moment we met, at the marriage of my father to her mother when I was twelve and she seventeen. As we grew up, I adored the way she rushed home from school, slammed the door of her room and wept histrionically. Later there were her school prizes and being the valedictorian, her causes and theses, her poetry and passionate seriousness-and then the surprising glamour of her romantic marriage to the charming Frenchman, and now the surprising drama of their breakup.
We are so different, my stepsister and I, that people don't compare us, and that has kept us friends. Hence my mission, for so it could be called, to come to Paris to help her with the new baby soon to arrive, and now, it seemed, to support her in this crisis. Ordinarily I would not be someone very good at baby-sitting. But I have always been good at helping Roxy; it was always I who picked up both our clothes and straightened our closets.
Roxy looked well, I thought, and only a little stouter than when I'd seen her last summer, not really showing yet. Her hair was cut to shoulder length, straight across the bottom, like pictures of Joan of Arc. Her hair and eyes are exactly the same light brown as a lovely forest animal's, and her skin was lit from within like a rosy parchment lampshade. I had never seen her look so well, but there was something distracted about her manner. "Charles-Henri is in the country," she told me immediately. At first, that was all she told me about his absence. But I was too jet-lagged to take in much. A heavy hemlockian sleepiness was already seeping in on me.
"You look wonderful, Izzy," she said. "Don't you love Paris? I know you will. Give me that bag. Is that all you brought? Good thing-your room hasn't got a closet. I forgot to tell you, no closets in France. Gennie's at her day care." And so on.
Her apartment was small, white-painted, with an antique chest of drawers missing some sections of its inlaid wood, and a leather sofa, and several of Charles-Henri's large abstracts. There was a stone fireplace with our family's painting of Saint Ursula over it, her dreamy smile seeming to welcome me, a familiar face from my own past, like a family photograph. I had always thought the woman in the painting was a princess accepting the rich tributes of a wealthy wooer, but Roxeanne has always said she is Saint Ursula, the virgin/warrior saint. I suppose this shows Roxy's nature, exigent and chaste, despite her pregnancy and the romantic nature of her predicament. Saint Ursula was a fourth-century virgin who was massacred eventually, but in this painting, in a contemplative moment in her chamber, she reposes, a book on her lap, disdaining a heap of gifts from the king who wishes to marry her. Two handmaidens standing behind her seem sternly supportive. The room is dark except for a candle on the table at her elbow, and it is the glow of this candle, softly illuminating her face and incidentally the gold and jewels behind her, that has brought up the name of Georges de La Tour.
I believe Roxy loved this picture better when we did not know the girl was Saint Ursula, nor the painter La Tour (if it was)-before it had value, before it became the center and symbol of acrimony.
--from Le Divorce by Diane Johnson, copyright © 1997 Diane Johnson, published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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