Marriage À La Mode

Diane Johnson Walks Down The Aisle With Another Comedy Of Franco-American Manners.

Le Mariage, by Diane Johnson (Dutton). $23.95.

SACR... BLEU! DIANE Johnson takes us to Paris again in an enchanting comedy of manners, Le Mariage. More of a companion piece than sequel to National Book Award finalist Le Divorce, Johnson's ninth novel traverses the cultural difference between Americans and the French with hilarity and grace.

We all know a marriage can be a trial. (Remember the nightmare of Robert Altman's The Wedding?) The impending marriage between Parisian Anne Sophie and mostly American Tim Nolanger gets immediately snagged up in an intricacy of subplots. The first of these is a murder.

You almost expect Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau to pop up as Anne Sophie recounts finding the body. Sensing an audience that night at dinner (between soup and entrée), she calmly relates "A man was murdered at my feet today, that is all. His throat was cut and I nearly walked in his blood." The only thing worse is that a woman Tim admires, the beautiful Clara Holly, upstages her performance when Clara reveals that it is a murder she knows something about.

Readers and writers are always suspect in fiction, and this novel is packed with them. Anne Sophie's mother, Estelle, writes shockingly sexual novels. Anne Sophie is a poor reader, but models herself on an amalgam of Estelle's characters. Parisian to the bone, she's thin, well dressed, smokes constantly, and believes in "obsessive depilation and having dainty lingerie." Passion and beauty, bedrock of her life, provide standards for understanding. She describes Jane Eyre as "the story of a little French girl, Adele, whose rich father, a surly Englishman, had locked his poor wife in an attic and had taken up with a puny, conniving governess."

Tim, the journalist, has mixed feelings about everything. He writes for both an ultraconservative magazine and a leftist journal. He sees no contradiction because he can play it both ways. Estelle thinks his breeding is an obstacle. His mother, Belgian by birth, has the poor sense to live in America even after she's been divorced. Her taste is so poor that she resides in Bay City, Michigan, as opposed to the father, who lives in the far more cosmopolitan city of Detroit (pronounced by French rules as day-twua.)

If all this seems capricious, it is, and delightfully so. Diane Johnson novels won't change your life. They don't pretend to. Johnson's prose is well written and informed by literary tradition. She's heir to Henry James with a sense of humor, or Jane Austin venturing outside the neighborhood. She's the quintessential American in Paris, writing novels easy to enjoy while offering a surreptitious visit to the city of lights. The smattering of French language will give even its weakest students joy in deciphering and a feeling that maybe French isn't so hard after all.

The story of Tim and Anne Sophie becomes intermingled with the story of a marriage that steadily disintegrates throughout the novel. Clara Holly, object of Tim's and many men's admiration, married film director Serge Cray when she was 20. Now, 12 years later, not all is well in their chateau. They have a running argument with a group of hunters that lands Clara in jail. It also leads to a steamy affair with Antoine de Persand, whose family appeared in Le Divorce.

The film director, a character based on Johnson's longtime friend Stanley Kubrick (Johnson wrote the screenplay for The Shining), also has a problem with reading. Serge Cray searches to find the right image to fill the screen, which is "infinitely wide, as expansive as the beautiful when compared to the crampedness, crabbednes of books." Books he only loves "for their role as forerunners of film, clumsy, flat, redolent of human commitment, effort, passion."

The enigma of interpretation reaches its peak with these characters' varying ideas of America. Cray's view is as stilted as his ideas on books. He's obsessed with this barbaric country of guns and cults. Despite a problem with the IRS, he travels to Oregon with Anne Sophie, Tim and a believer in various alternative lifestyles, Delia. He finds a cabin in the woods containing his kidnapped mother-in-law and her survivalist caretaker to be the perfect setting for his film, an exposé of American vigilante militias.

Counterbalancing Cray's view is that of Anne Sophie. She finds grandeur in America, which she claims is "a nation of readers," based on the number of bookstores she finds in Portland. All Americans in Anne Sophie's experience speak French. Tim, who is assured that America needs him, overhears her explaining the reason Americans drive huge cars. "They had to get rid of trains because of a buffalo problem...the corpses of buffaloes on tracks...they just got out of the habit of trains."

She returns from America with just one problem, an inability to fit into her wedding dress. Quel fromage! But then we know that all Americans are fat.

Johnson blends the intricate plots in such a way as never to lose a thread. One of the climactic scenes at a dinner party in Clara and Serge's chateau pays homage to Kubrick in high dramatic tension, as le mariage of the title finally comes off.

Johnson rescues the reputation of the novel with a complex piece that was written, and should be read, with a sharp sense of humor.

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