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LE MARIAGE A Novel By Diane Johnson; Dutton: 322 pp., $23.95

May 14, 2000|MERLE RUBIN

One often hears that it is no longer possible to write novels of social comedy in the tradition of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. How can a novelist poke fun at pretension, snobbery, gaucherie and other behavior that deviates from normal standards when no one seems sure anymore what those standards are?

But defying the conventional wisdom, novelists like Alison Lurie, Diane Johnson and the late Barbara Pym have continued, enriched and expanded the social comic tradition. Pym's exquisite blend of wistfulness, benign humor and an almost irrepressible sense of fun was as quintessentially English as curates, cream teas and church jumble sales. Lurie and Johnson, Americans with ties to England and France, respectively, find comedy in the contrast of national cultures, which still maintain some degree of their classic distinctness even as they slouch toward global homogenization.

Johnson's "Le Mariage" is a kind of sequel and companion piece to her 1997 bestseller, "Le Divorce." A sequel because the events in it happen after the events in "Le Divorce." A companion piece not only because a few of the characters from the one book appear in the other but also because both novels offer clever variations on similar themes. But merely a "kind of" sequel because "Le Mariage" does not continue the central story lines of "Le Divorce" and merely a "kind of" companion piece because each novel stands nicely on its own.

"Le Divorce" is narrated by Isabel Walker, a young, single but not-too-innocent American in Paris. Isabel is visiting her older sister Roxy, whose marriage to a Frenchman is about to shatter on the shoals of his adultery. Is unfaithfulness a good reason for divorce? The answer may depend on whether one is American (concerned with one's self-respect and freedom above all) or French (concerned with social, financial and familial stability). But the story in many ways is more about Isabel's little affair with an old-enough-to-be-her-grandfather Frenchman who introduces her to good food and sexy lingerie.

"Le Mariage" is, if anything, a more polished performance than "Le Divorce." Johnson, who has chosen to narrate this story in the omniscient third-person voice, maintains a greater sense of balance among the intertwining story lines and a firmer sense of authorial control.

The story concerns two transatlantic couples: an American actress married to a Polish emigre film director and an American journalist engaged to marry a pretty young French antique dealer. Clara Holly and Serge Cray, the actress and director, live in the countryside outside Paris. Although "beautiful, rich, well married, far from her Oregon beginnings," Clara has nonetheless managed not to become "a monster . . . as so often happens to women in her category." Indeed, despite her good fortune, Clara is rather isolated. Her husband is no longer ardent--or even attentive--toward her, yet he jealously resents the very notion that she might want to visit her old mother in Oregon. (She doesn't really want to, not all that much, and is rather relieved to use her husband's reluctance as an excuse not to.)


Tim Nolinger, the affable American journalist, is engaged to Anne-Sophie, "confident, flirtatious, cheerful, enterprising." Wittily invoking Francois Boucher's paintings of nymphs, Johnson introduces her as she's about to take one of her elaborate scented baths.

How well do these two attractive young people know one another--or themselves? Anne-Sophie is less sure of herself than she seems. The daughter of Estelle d'Argel, a well-known author of sexy, sophisticated novels, Anne-Sophie has tried to follow the advice dispensed by the worldly heroines of her mother's books, stuff like "Never make a man feel guilty" and "All men really require is extravagant admiration of their genitals." Neither Anne-Sophie nor her mother really knows how to "place" Tim Nolinger in the context of American society, although Estelle mistakenly comes to believe that his family is extremely rich.

A mildly bizarre plot involving a stolen manuscript, a murder and a survivalist cult in Oregon brings the two couples together, as Tim investigates and Serge Cray, a manuscript collector as well as a film director, promises to inform Tim if the thieves contact him. But Tim finds himself more interested in Cray's lovely wife, Clara, than in the story he's pursuing. Poor Clara, meanwhile, becomes the target of the local gentry, who are furious at her stand against hunting. Her husband, though also anti-hunting, seems less interested in protecting his wife than in making a film about the Oregon survivalists, whose defiance of governmental authority strikes a chord with him. No wonder his neglected, hitherto faithful wife might consider turning elsewhere for comfort and affection!

Anne-Sophie, caught up in the midst of all this, is uncomfortably reminded of a French farce, full of naughty people "popping out of closets and crawling under beds. . . . [W]hereas in an American play the wife was always in tears, with no friend but a dog or cat. . . . So," she wonders, "would you rather be the wife in a French play or an American one? Should an American man and a French wife settle beforehand which kind of play they were in?"

Skirting the extremes of tragedy and farce, Johnson steers a risky and exhilarating course between social comedy and something darker. The dangers that beset her characters are no joke, running the gamut from romantic disappointment to bodily harm. Johnson's ability to incorporate so many potentially jarring elements into the story without sacrificing her comic tone or lightness of touch is solid evidence that social comedy, in capable hands, is still alive and well.

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