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Le Divorce (William Abrahams Book) Paperback – January 1, 1998
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Diane Johnson updates the transatlantic novel so gorgeously rendered by Henry James, Edith Wharton, William Dean Howells, and Nathaniel Hawthorne; evokes the spirit of such expatriates sojourning in Paris as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and mines the pathos of modern fiction in creating this wonderful and important novel. Isabel Walker, eerily reminiscent of James's Isabel Archer, is a young film-school dropout who travels to Paris to aid her stepsister, who is going through a divorce. Isabel's California cool, American freedoms, and feminist slants comingle, successfully and fractiously, with the customs, biases, and complex sexuality of modern Europe. The result modulates between introspection and hilarity, and a quick, Hollywood-inspired sweep of violent action in the end doesn't undermine the author's mastery of Old World vs. New--in fact, it provides an ironic scrim. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
It's no accident that the epigraph for this delightfully urbane social tragicomedy is taken from Henry James. Narrator Isabel Walker is a latter-day Isabel Archer, a charming, intelligent but naive American in Paris, who thinks herself sophisticated and analytical until her eyes are opened during the ironic, erotic and shocking events in the course of which she comes of age. Restless and unfocused, a drop-out from film school at Berkeley, Isabel is sent to Paris to help her pregnant step-sister, Roxy, through a difficult time: Roxy's husband, Charles-Henri Persand, has left her and their toddler daughter to run off with another woman. Isabel accepts a motley range of jobs in the American expatriate community?running errands, helping a famous writer with her files, serving at parties, etc.?and becomes aware of the jealousy and backbiting among the insular set. At first totally at sea because of the language barrier, she also gradually becomes aware that a chasm of misunderstandings and basic attitudinal differences lies beneath the cordial facade of Franco-American relationships. Meanwhile, an heirloom painting that Roxy brought to Paris is suddenly discovered to be an immensely valuable La Tour; under French law, it will be considered part of the divorce settlement. The tangled provenance of this painting creates tensions among the Walker family's half-siblings. The wealthy and powerful Persand family are also beset by a series of emotional involvements, including Isabel's own clandestine relationship with Charles-Henri's elderly uncle, a charming roue and political eminence grise. By the time the various strands of the plot culminate in surreal scenes at EuroDisney and the poubelles (refuse bins) of Roxy's apartment building, Isabel has become wiser about herself and the world, though she realizes that her point of view will always be colored by her Californian mindset. Johnson's (Persian Nights) control of her material is impeccable. The world of American expatriates is fertile territory for her ironic wit, which is both subtle and sharp. Everything here delights the reader: the sinuous plot with its rising suspense; the charged insights into family dynamics; the reflections on morality as perceived on both sides of the Atlantic; the witty asides on food, politics and sibling rivalry; the dialogue, which reflects both American and French speech patterns and social conventions; and the views of Paris itself, seen through the eyes of an ingenue who grows in sophistication as she begins to understand the reality that permeates this city of romance.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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There is some foreshadowing in the novel, and I am not sure what the author was trying to accomplish – the foreshadowing is factually correct, but misleading in suggesting a dark ending for what is really a comedy. Maybe it is a deliberate trick on the reader, a last joke
The best part are the quotes by famous French philosophers and writers at the beginning of the chapters.
Both sisters are fanatic lovers of French culture, and both sisters put pursuing their own interests and needs above joining the stressful rat-wheel of the US workplace. Roxy marries a handsome French artist; while Isabel has an affair with an older French statesman. Seems like they both love not just France, but an older 1950s France, where marriage was revered, and women treated with much generosity and respect. To them, France represents a whole better way of living, almost like a cult.
Both characters have certain flaws; for example, they accept any and all US government political correctness (PC) without the slightest doubt. They don't seem to realize that in choosing France as the cultural center of the globe they are following US post-WW2 propaganda, designed to assuage the horror that the US public felt at the destruction of Europe in that war. Supposedly defending France had to be shaped as the greatest of all causes.
Also, they both mindlessly take up the cause of the Bosnian Muslims, even to the point of causing embarrassing scenes, and they don't even seem to know their own reasons.
My own observation over the years is that certain of my female college classmates, those who mindlessly advocated PC, did in fact fly high career-wise, despite their unimpressive work effort and mediocre talents; even those who would privately ridicule leftist programs.
Isabel's great epiphany towards the end of the book is that she wants to go to the Balkans as some sort of Soros minion, and sleep with the interesting men there; “experience” which no doubt could be packaged into breathy paragraphs on a future resume to the US State Dept. as "qualifications" for a glamorous sinecure.
Ms. Pace, Isabel's Trotskyite mentor on all things cultural, tells her that the CIA used to recruit Seven Sister society girls to be operatives in foreign countries. Isabel might ordinarily be the sort of leftist Californian who would hate and mistrust the CIA, but she can see the exciting ($$$) possibilities.
Mindlessly parroting PC therefore is presented (accurately) as the pathway to social advancement; prove to be a good little apparatchik, and all the right doors will fly open. Altogether the book furnishes an interesting glimpse at how the system works.