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Lulu in Marrakechby Diane Johnson
"Johnson lays out the life of the privileged foreigners and the watchful Moroccans in a fluent, wry, sometimes very funny style in the grand tradition of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, who peopled their novels with laconic British colonials savoring the heat and hedonism of the British Empire." Brigitte Week, Washington Post Book World (read the entire Book World review)
Synopses & Reviews
The two-time Pulitzer Prize and three-time National Book Awardnominated author of the bestseller Le Divorce returns with a mesmerizing novel of double standards and double agents.
Lulu Sawyer, the heroine of Diane Johnso‛s captivating new novel, arrives in Marrakech, Morocco, hoping to rekindle her romance with a worldly Englishman, Ian Drumm. I‛s the perfect cover for her assignment with the American CIA: tracing the flow of money from well-heeled donors to radical Islamic groups. While spending her days poolside among Europeans, in villas staffed by local maids in abayas, and her nights at lively dinner parties, Lulu observes the fragile coexistence of two cultures which, if not yet clashing, have begun to show signs of fracture. Beneath the surface of this polite expatriate community lies a more sinister world laced not only with double standards, but with double agents.
As she navigates the complex interface of Islam and the West, Lulu stumbles into unforeseen intrigues: A young Muslim girl, Suma, is hiding from a brother intent on an honor killing; and a beautiful Saudi woman, Gazi, who is vying for Ia‛s love, leaves her husband in a desperate bid to escape her repressive society. The more Lulu immerses herself in the workings of Marrakech, the more questions emerge; and when bombs explode, the danger is palpable.
Lul‛s mission ultimately has tragic consequences, but along the way readers will fall in love with this endearing young woman as she improvises her way through the souk, her love life, and her profession. As in her previous novels, Diane Johnson weaves a dazzling tale in the great tradition of works about naive Americans abroad and the laws of unintended consequence, with a new, fascinating assortment of characters, as well as witty, trenchant observations on the manners and morals of a complicated moment in history.
"Fans of Johnson's NBA finalist Le Divorce will know what to expect: a fish-out-of-water story about a clash of cultures. Still, the tone and scope of this agreeable if quiet story owes more to the author's early work — Persian Nights, in particular — than the better-known ones about Franco-American culture clashes. Like that 1987 book, this one has more than a soupon of politics thrown into its cultural comedy of manners. Lulu Sawyer is a CIA agent who arrives in Morocco, both to rekindle her romance with worldly English boyfriend Ian and to trace the flow of Western money to radical Islamic groups. She meets with characters both Western and Eastern, which allows for some typically Johnsonian observations ('[Honor killing is] not so common among Algerians.... It's usually the Turks,' opines one character). The book works best in small moments and in scenes involving the supporting characters, but the central plot — about Lulu and Ian's relationship — never quite catches fire, and Lulu-as-CIA-agent seems tired and unnecessary. Most fans will wade through the overdetermined plot to get to the sly asides and the astute observation that are and always have been Johnson's forte." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Diane Johnson is a true woman of letters. She has written more than a dozen books, all respectfully reviewed, and won major honors. While building a reputation as a mistress of elegant, intricate fiction, she has for decades written perceptive and sometimes acerbic critical essays for the New York Review of Books, as well as the screenplay for "The Shining," the horrific Stanley Kubrick movie based... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) on Stephen King's novel. Johnson is a multitalented wordsmith. Through it all she has been a committed Francophile, who lives half of the year in Paris. Over a six-year span — 1997 to 2003 — with a trio of accomplished and witty novels, "Le Divorce," "Le Mariage" and "L'Affaire," she cornered the market on Franco-American fiction. Her sophisticated and somewhat condescending French characters and down-home American visitors assess one another in what the San Francisco Chronicle aptly called "an endless dance of profound incompatibility." She now turns her sights on Morocco, where France has exercised considerable cultural and political influence since the beginning of the 20th century. "Lulu in Marrakech" places Johnson's eponymous heroine, a freelance CIA operative, code-named "Bearer Angel," in one of Morocco's most mysterious and glamorous cities. Working under the pseudonym "Lulu Sawyer" (we never find out her real name), Lulu must collect information on any acquaintances who might be funding terrorists plotting attacks, training suicide bombers or compensating their bereaved families. Her CIA boss tells her to discover "who are the bankers," because "huge sums of money change hands in the souk, intended for jihad, never going near a bank." It then occurs to her that she has no idea how to accomplish such a dangerous and delicate mission. Lulu is a well-educated, reasonably attractive, youngish American woman who appears to be paying a prolonged visit to her lover, a stiff-necked Englishman named Ian Drumm. Lulu met Ian the previous year in Kosovo, where they were both working with civil war refugees. Happily for this underpaid government secret agent, her boyfriend now lives in a gated villa complete with verdant garden, swimming pool and multicultural houseguests. Ian, the son of an affluent British Lord, has industrial and real estate investments in Morocco — what exactly they are is never quite clear. Lulu's cover is that she's doing research into illiteracy amongst Muslim women, who appear to live in a society with an almost impenetrable veil — cultural and literal — around their daily lives and ideas. The power of the veil surprises Lulu. After all, she says to herself, it is just a piece of cloth: "With nuns, no one thought about the veil, and now it was a principal article in dealing with vast political questions, such as Turkey joining the European Union." She also worries that she is not supplying her CIA handler with dramatic enough information and wonders if she'll ever find a card-carrying terrorist. Perhaps, she thinks, it would be easier just to marry Ian and retire from the secret-agent business. Meanwhile, she makes covert phone calls to her CIA contact from hotel lobbies and sets up a lending library, a project that "tallied nicely with my clandestine interests, since it turned out that a lot of intrigue was required — asking people who were going to Paris or London to smuggle books back, for instance." Johnson lays out the life of the privileged foreigners and the watchful Moroccans in a fluent, wry, sometimes very funny style in the grand tradition of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, who peopled their novels with laconic British colonials savoring the heat and hedonism of the British Empire. She catches every nuance of life in Marrakech. A pair of gay British men keep a tea shop; a French Muslim woman, fleeing the threat of an honor killing, works as a nanny; an American-educated Saudi-Arabian struggles with her arranged marriage; Col. Barka, a mysterious Moroccan colonel who is or is not working for the French or perhaps the Americans, befriends Lulu. All move seamlessly in and out of the plot. Johnson nails the fiber and oddity of this tightly wound society of ex-patriots — the majority French and British — as Lulu makes well-intentioned but mostly unsuccessful attempts to befriend "real" Moroccans. She finds that "the Europeans and the Moroccans were each afflicted with an eye disease that prevented them from seeing each other — it was the perennial eye infection of colonialism." Initially, not much happens in the leisured life of the expatriates, except that Lulu worries about her relationship with Ian, and fellow houseguest Posy gets more and more pregnant, until suddenly events begin to unravel. Lulu finds herself involved in bomb attacks, violence and even murder. A pretty tall order for even a le Carre-caliber spy, and Lulu doesn't exactly see herself as 007. "I saw that I wasn't going to be good at this kind of illegal, risky activity in my chosen profession. It was too late for me, I lacked the anarchic core. ... I was too goody-two-shoes." Johnson is often a wonderful writer. Her characters and their setting have life, sounds and smells. Their conversations reveal much more than the characters themselves realize. But the foundations, the premises on which this story is built, are shaky. There is a sense of something missing, even in the midst of graphic descriptions of Marrakesh and its residents. The spy craft with scraps of paper and secret passwords feels more like a tale from the 1950s. Even in this fictional world, it's hard to believe that a somewhat ditzy and not that well-informed woman would be recruited by a U.S. espionage agency. She makes mistakes and takes risks that in real life would have blown her cover to smithereens. The novel has a curiously anticlimactic conclusion, too, almost as if the author suddenly tired of her story. Perhaps a double-agent story involving post-9/11 al-Qaeda-style terrorists is just too grim to lend itself comfortably to elegant and witty fiction. Brigitte Weeks is a former editor of The Washington Post Book World. Reviewed by Brigitte Weeks, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
The two-time Pulitzer Prize- and three-time National Book Award-nominated author of the bestseller "Le Divorce" returns with a mesmerizing novel of double standards and double agents.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize and three-time National Book Award-nominated author of Le Divorce returns with a mesmerizing novel of double standards and double agents
In Lulu in Marrakech, Diane Johnson brilliantly exposes the manners and morals of the cultural collision between Islam and the West. Lulu Sawyer arrives in Marrakech, Morocco, hoping to rekindle her romance with a worldly Englishman, Ian Drumm. It?s the perfect cover for her assignment for the CIA?tracing the flow of money from well-heeled donors to radical Islamic groups. While spending her days poolside among Europeans in villas staffed by maids in abayas, and her nights at lively dinner parties, Lulu observes the fragile and tense coexistence of two cultures. But beneath the surface of this polite expatriate community lies a sinister world laced not only with double standards, but double agents.
As in her previous novels, Diane Johnson weaves a dazzling tale in the great tradition of works about naïve Americans abroad, with a fascinating new assortment of characters as well as witty and timely observations on the political and sexual complexities between Islamic and Western culture.
About the Author
Diane Johnson is the bestselling author of fourteen previous books, including Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and ‛Affaire. She is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a three-time finalist for the National Book Award.
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