NY: Dutton, 1997.
When Isabel Walker, a recent dropout (for no very good reason) from the USC film school and a quintessential California girl from Santa Barbara, gets off the plane in Paris, she thinks she’s there to hold the hand of her poet stepsister, Roxy, through her second pregnancy. She doesn’t yet know that Roxy’s French artist husband, Charles-Henri, has just left her for another woman.
Roxy’s mother-in-law, Suzanne, counsels patience — he’ll come back. Of course he will, he’s French. But Roxy, while she has acquired a thick patina of Frenchness, is still thoroughly American inside. Isabel meanwhile installs herself in a small attic room in Roxy’s apartment building and sets about learning Paris (though it takes her forever to acquire even the rudiments of conversational French). Her narrative of the ensuing six months, relating her adventures with her sister (including a depressive suicide attempt), her toddler niece (causally bilingual, naturally), her adventures in the city doing odd jobs for other American residents, her discovery of real French cuisine, her love affair with a 70-year-old political figure (who is also a member of her brother-in-law’s family), and her comments regarding their studiedly modern, liberal parents (who aren’t especially modern or liberal when push comes to shove), make this a delightful book, which was a National Book Award finalist. Oh, and there’s that painting of Saint Ursula, descended through the California Walker family and most recently a wedding gift from Roxy (who brought it to Paris) to her husband; is it community property under French law? And are the authorities not going to allow it to leave France, merely because it was painted there several centuries ago? And there’s that murder, which changes everything. Johnson is a very droll storyteller, with an eye for the cultural and lifestyle differences between Americans and the French. (She spends half her time in California and half in Paris herself.) This has become a popular book for reading groups, and it’s easy to see why.