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Culture Shock : LE DIVORCE, By Diane Johnson; <i> Dutton: 309 pp.</i> ,<i> $23.95</i>

Isabel Walker, not Isabel Archer, is the protagonist of Diane Johnson’s “Le Divorce,” but unquestionably the author means to remind us of the heroine of “Portrait of a Lady": American innocence in the toil of European society.

The specific gravity of Johnson’s witty novel is considerably less than that of Henry James’ celebrated work--it is somewhere between James’ lighter “The American” and Nancy Mitford’s Anglo-French social misunderstandings. Despite a bloody ending (it is stage blood, though), “Le Divorce” is a comedy of manners rather than a comedy of life. For James, of course, manners were life, whereas for Johnson, though she is very good at them, they aren’t quite.

In “Le Divorce,” it is not one but two Americans who find their lives and assumptions disassembled by their involvement with a well-placed French family. Roxy, a poet from Santa Barbara, has married Charles, scion of the Persands of Avenue Wagram and a small estate outside Chartres. Upon Roxy’s second pregnancy, Charles leaves her for an older, married woman. He regrets the necessity, but passion, like the laws governing the proper preparation of dinner, is sacred.

His passion, that is, and his dinner. He is a princeling of the upper bourgeoisie, an institution far more formidable in France than the aristocracy. The latter, after all, lost the revolution, missed out on the Industrial Revolution (unlike many shrewd English counterparts) and got watered down among rival Bourbon dynasties plus two sets of late-comer Napoleonic dukes and counts.

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Roxy’s flaky younger half-sister, Isabel, is dispatched by her parents to assist with the pregnancy--and to give themselves a rest. She arrives just as Charles walks out. Before long she finds herself in a situation utterly unfamiliar to her casually sexy, pot-smoking California lifestyle. She has become the formal though clandestine mistress of Uncle Edgar Persand, a 70-year-old war hero and minor political celebrity--and a man so perfect in the role of elderly rouee that he could be bottled as a vintage.

Mainly, and most satisfyingly, “Le Divorce” is an account of the clanks and screeches when the fine-grinding mills of French society are fed two chunky pieces of American raw material--and of the shock effects upon the material.

France is a culture of established distances, starting from the central intimacies of family and property and working outward in the concentric removes of friends, business associates, fellow citizens, foreign residents and tourists. The orbits function delightfully as long as they are kept to.

As the recognized American wife, diligently learning French and accepting the proprieties of the Persand family, Roxy is placed in several orbits. Divorce, though, threatens to smash asteroid-like into the vital center, what with unpredictable claims over property and over Roxy’s Persand daughter and her future Persand baby. Lawyers will move into the wreckage and nobody knows what to expect of Roxy’s possibly savage American parents, who eventually fly in from Santa Barbara.

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As for Isabel, the Persands have approved her for the tourist orbit of cafes, flowers, art, food, flirtations, the easy puzzlement and enchantment of language and also--one circle in--for the cordiality bestowed on an in-law’s little sister. But to become the petite amie of the married Uncle Edgar is to invade, not all the way (there is an orbit for petites amies ), but much too far for comfort, particularly in the midst of the divorce panic.

Johnson keeps too many balls in the air at the same time, and some get lost. A subplot about the permanent American community in Paris provides some sketchily drawn characters and quarrels, none particularly interesting. There is a subplot to the subplot, involving a burglary ring that supplies an apparently respectable antiques dealer.

A violent denouement takes care of the divorce imbroglio. The fact, though, that part of it occurs at the Euro Disney complex--Mouse ex machina --provides a little too much meaningful irony and a little too little resolution, even for the social comedy that Johnson has instructed so nicely. The delicate clockwork of farce--door opens just as opposite door slams--is impeded when a body lies bleeding in the jamb.

The genius of “Le Divorce” is less in the characters than in the clatter of their entangled national machineries. Roxy, caught between her American instinct to fight and her adoptive French desire to fit, remains a diffuse puzzle. Isabel, as the innocent and not-so-innocent eye, blinks and swivels too often to achieve focus. She might have been better in the third person. A first-person narrator is only a little more important for what she tells than for what she is, and Isabel comes out all too accurately as a nothing-much.

What Isabel tells is terrific, though. There is her calibrated handling by the immaculately preserved Edgar: a being of mannerly and sensual splendor. Isabel’s experience of sex is a Sloppy Joe compared with the truffled finesse of Edgar’s offerings. Further, he impresses this Santa Barbara Generation X-er with his public standing as a flourish on France’s historic blazon, regularly appearing on television to trumpet the need for honor in Bosnia. When he feels it is time to break off--the Persands have found out--his steel and courtesy are equally fine. We are not sure whether Isabel has been skewered or initiated.

There is the account of Isabel’s and Roxy’s parents and Roger, their brother, steaming in from California to uphold their side of the divorce. (Their side narrows to the ownership of a small painting by La Tour that Roxy brought to France but may have to be sold so that half of its suddenly considerable value can go, under French law, to Charles.)

Roger is a formidably armed American lawyer, with massive litigation resources and hardly a clue about anything. After treating the family to a $700 dinner at the Georges V, he insists that no tip is required because the 15% service charge takes care of it. He has researched this. He has got it wrong. Roxy slips 30 francs to the waiter; Isabel reflects that Edgar would have put in 100. (The French experience at two price levels: lunch outings en famille and a dinner of seduction.)

The best of Johnson’s shrewd social machineries is her portrait of how French things work. There are art experts and Louvre officials manipulating their assessments of La Tour. There is an exquisite tour of the French divorce laws. And there is the complexity--Johnson, one of our finest critics and essayists, makes complexity into a rich nourishment--of the manners, motives, qualities and fears of the Persands. They maneuver, not to injure Roxy--she is theirs in part and they are concerned about her--but to safeguard an entity, abstract to us but infinitely concrete to them: the family position.

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Johnson’s social comedy is at its best with the Californians’ visit to Chartres for Sunday lunch with the Persands. Both sides are in battle array, of quite different qualities. The universal state of nerves makes the Americans alternately silent and blunt, and the Persands, all of whom are there, are each more cordial and polite than the other. There are tentative feints, deflected or withdrawn amid graceful French and awkward American compliments. Suddenly the Persands explode. Out of the medieval forest, the Gauls erupt howling. How? In a furious denunciation of the quality of the wine and cheese they themselves have just served.

RICHARD EDER lists his 10 best books of 1996 on Page 11


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