by Diane Johnson
Alpine Daisy Miller
A review by Thomas Mallon
For accuracy's sake, Diane Johnson's new novel should probably be titled Le Mort,
since its clever complications affaires both legal and sexual all proceed
from the demise, under an avalanche in the French Alps, of spry, seventyish Adrian
Venn. Over the past few decades he has fathered four children by three different
women one French, one British, and, most recently, one American, Kerry, who
is temporarily comatose from her own brush with the avalanche.
Johnson assembles a gaggle of potential heirs and amoureux inside the Hôtel
Croix St. Bernard, and it is mostly through the earnest, well-intentioned gaze
of one of the guests, Amy Hawkins (a wealthy California dot-commer, not quite
thirty), that we perceive them: self-pitying Posy (Venn's British daughter)
and her sunny French half-sister, Vee; Kip Canby, Kerry's teenage brother; Robin
Crumley, an unexpectedly heterosexual British poet; and Emile Abboud, Vee's
sexy French-Tunisian husband, whose success as a TV talking head is assured
by his loathing of all things American.
The uncertain cause of the avalanche and the Orient-Express feel of the shared
hotel push the novel toward the mystery genre, and conflicting French and English
inheritance laws induce some fine cross-cultural commotion. An element of farce zippy
but not Feydeau-frantic keeps everything energized.
Johnson must have begun this book the third in a loose trio with Le
Divorce (1997) and Le
Mariage (2000) before the run-up to the Iraq War, but L'Affaire, which
more than earns its epigraph from Giraudoux ("The destiny of France is
to irritate the world"), could scarcely feel more courant. Poor Amy, who
longs to improve herself with further knowledge of all things French, finds
herself instead "being made to stand for all Americans." Her belief
in cooperation and her somewhat blundering generosity make her the variant of
a familiar utopian type, an American character whose lineage stretches back
through The Bostonians to The Blithedale Romance. And, of course, her manner
and money make her as ripe for the picking as Daisy Miller. Before things are
over, she'll have received the attentions of Paul-Louis, a ski instructor; Otto,
a property-developing baron; and Emile, the pseudo-intellectual jerk.
For all her appeal, Amy cannot match the charms of Le Divorce's Isabel
Walker. Johnson herself seems to know this; she won't entrust her new leading
character with the first-person narration she gave to the earlier heroine, also
a Californian, whose combination of shrewdness and okay-whatever insouciance
was a particular pleasure. (Careful readers will spot Antoine de Persand, one
of L'Affaire's lawyers, as a direct link to Le Divorce, whose Merchant
Ivory adaptation reached theaters in August.)
Still, L'Affaire is full of tip-top invention CNN arrives to speak
with a post-comatose Kerry about the Joan of Arc vision she may have had prior
to the accident along with Johnson's always felicitous description (Vee,
with her "tendencies to happiness," has "the fair ringlets and
wide blue eyes of putti in paintings"). The novel seems oddly more confined
when it forsakes the alpine hotel for Paris, and at the end it packs its bags
rather hastily, leaving some minor plot lines sticking out like socks. But these
flaws are of little consequence. Diane Johnson has a lightness of touch that
has nearly disappeared from literary fiction, comic or otherwise. What a pleasure
to be hit with her fluffy, sparkling avalanche, instead of the usual ton of
bricks from almost anybody else.
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