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January 27, 1998

Books by Kay Kimbrough

Diane Johnson
Plume, 1998, $12. 95.

The plot of this novel is overwhelmed by its major theme: the impossibility of removing all the cultural barriers that separate different nations and the common traits of human nature that bind individuals together, no matter what the culture. Isabel, the narrator, is the quintessential American girl. She grew up liberated in California, properly nurtured by a college professor father and a benevolent step-mother, went to film school, dropped out, and went to France under the auspices of helping her sister through a difficult time while in reality escaping the necessity of deciding what to do next.

Isabel is ornery but honest, intelligent but undisciplined, skeptical but naive, and cynical but trusting. Her stepsister Roxy is so different from her "that people don't compare us, and that has kept us friends." Roxy is a poet married to a French painter from an aristocratic family who has abandoned her, her daughter, and her unborn baby for a Czechoslovakian sociologist married to an American lawyer employed by EuroDisney.

The plot becomes more complicated when Isabel starts an affair with the uncle of Roxy's absent husband. Uncle Edgar is tall, famous, distinguished, intelligent and old. Isabel is surprised to find that she is attracted to such an old man, but she later goes even further and falls in love with him. He is, of course, married, and he of course has a reputation as a chronic womanizer, a ruiner of young women. Isabel, who begins her stay in France being thankful that she has been spared the curse of having a romantic heart like Roxy's, is thoroughly and willingly seduced by Edgar. Roxy had fallen in love with France and its culture during her junior year abroad in Aix-en-Provence. In marrying Charles-Henri, she married France. Isabel begins by resisting France and everything French, but in falling in love with Edgar, falls in love with France.

The irony of Isabel's fate is underscored by her initial scorn of those who are taken in by French culture. "This cultural disloyalty of Roxy's--where did it come from? Nothing bad had happened to her in America. Why was she more charmed by the idea of TOUSSAINT, for example, than of Halloween? Aren't they the same? I don't share her unqualified admiration for all things European. I see plenty that's wrong. But that's the curse of my nature. Even as a little girl, I lacked that endearing property of female credulousness.." Poor Isabel finds that she is as credulous as they come before her stay in France is over.

Isabel makes amusing comments about the French throughout the novel, but she knows the French are making similar comments about Americans. She speculates about the chicness of French women: "To me it appeared they all went around in drab beige raincoats, wearing identical plain scarves--English, Roxy said, from Burberry's. It's funny, this fashion, considering that they think of the English as treacherous, hypocritical, and unwashed--exactly what the English think of them."

Later in the novel, the culture clash is expressed by a Frenchman:

"Mais non, Americans are totally inscrutable. Their smiles. They mask themselves with smiles. And they will not tell you their family name. 'Just call me Marilyn,' they say. It is very sinister." Isabel responds, "But to me it was they, and the situation, that were inscrutable."

The surface of this novel is comic, entertaining, and pleasurable to anyone who appreciates France and its culture. There is a serious underside to the story, for there is nothing funny about adultery, thievery, greed and murder.

The culture clash becomes representative of international disputes that lead to war. The Bosnian War is a subject of great concern in Paris during the course of the novel. This war, too, stems from the clash of cultures. After all, the word DIVORCE applies not only to marriage but also to any relationship that can be severed.

Isabel ends her story with a series of questions about identity, nationality, and culture. Her intention is to pursue Edgar and resume her relationship with him, but her final resolution is basic to the subject of human conflicts in general, cultural clashes included. She resolves to learn to communicate with the French by "planning to really buckle down to studying French."

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