Book Review – Le Divorce by Diane Johnson

Another book that has spent many years on my shelf waiting to be read, Le Divorce by Diane Johnson tells the story of a pair of American born stepsisters living in Paris. Roxeanne is a few months pregnant with her second child when her sister Isabel comes to Paris to help her through her pregnancy. The day Isabel arrives, Roxy’s husband leaves her for another (married) woman.

Though Isabel still takes time to enjoy herself and do some soul searching of her own, a great deal of her time is spent focused on Roxeanne and the process of her divorce, especially when a family owned painting Roxeanne brought to France with her when she married turns out to be worth more than the family ever expected and its ownership within the marriage becomes disputed.

Narrated by Isabel, the main focus of the novel is the cultural differences between France and the United States, especially as they apply to those Americans living abroad. The divorce proceedings highlight the difficulties of an American dealing with French law and being the disadvantaged foreigner (a status Americans have a hard time imagining). The subject of infidelity is examined from both angles through Isabel’s own affair with a married older man. The stepsisters, who already had very different personalities, are then put on opposite sides of similar situations, allowing the reader to see both perspectives. The novel is still narrated by only one of the sisters and that fact must be taken into consideration before any generalizations can be made on the part of the reader.

That one-sided narration bothered me at times. Johnson committed herself to keeping the novel a first person narration, forcing her to find ways around the restrictions that creates. There are several scenes where Isabel “imagines” what took place elsewhere, conversations that happened half a world away in California. It is possible that it could be pieced together after the fact but I found those scenes uncomfortable, unnatural. Similarly, Isabel repeats herself a lot, especially about the details of the divorce. All families have those difficult times where something happens and its all you can talk about, but it becomes tiresome reading.

As far as the plot goes, I enjoyed the simplicity and universality of Le Divorce. Johnson’s strongest moments can be seen in the interaction between the two families. Roxeanne’s mother-in-law, Suzanne de Persand, continues having Roxy and Isabel to Sunday dinner in the country even after her son leaves Roxeanne. The forced niceties and unspeakable tension created by the divided loyalties and but shared relationship are wonderfully true to life in their representation. Even the tensions it creates within members of Isabel and Roxy’s American family are faithful to human nature.

Though the plot was simple, there were times when Johnson unnecessarily complicates it for dramatic effect and it instead becomes melodramatic. All the scenes that involve Mr. Tillman (in particular the entirety of the EuroDisney incident) are a little confusing and ridiculous, working too blatantly to create an easy-out ending. The point that ending makes about the different views taken to a newly single woman based on circumstances is a good one; I just wish Johnson could have reached it through different means.

Overall, an okay read but I don’t know that I’m too interested in reading Johnson’s other novels that examine the social misconceptions that happen when you bring the French and Americans together, including L’Affaire and Le Mariage.

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