Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Revisiting an old favourite

Le Divorce is a good novel that is a little frustrating because it could have been a great novel. The New York Times review when the book first came out 20 years ago sums it up nicely:
As the tension mounts, more and more people get things backward until the plot veers into melodrama that seems a bit outsize for the scale of the events that lead to it. The novel's other minor flaws are too many loose ends and too many false portents, although these may be a part of the paranoia that prevails when two cultures misunderstand each other.

Where Ms. Johnson never loses her touch is in tracking Isabel's romance with the French.
And that is why you might want to read it. The events of the novel are interesting at the beginning but too too much at the end. But Isabel, well, she's a gem.

It's easy to romanticize France all out of proportion. You can even do it with Quebec that is a lot closer to home. The thing that is wonderful about them is an attitude towards sexuality, an atitude towards women's sexuality.

Isabel starts off by not getting it. Here is how it comes up. She meets a woman named Janet Hollingsworth, "a ruined-looking American beauty who told me she was writing a book about French women." And what Isabel thinks Janet is interested in is this, "I gathered she meant things about fascination, sex, arts of seduction, but she did not say so, may have been talking about culinary secrets, or perhaps all of the above." And then follows Isabel's judgment on Janet:
To tell the truth, I was sorry to see an Anglo-Saxon so convinced that women need wiles and arts, and that the only quarry worth hunting was men. I told myself that she had spent too much time on the Continent, and had thus missed the modern mood of self-sufficiency and of being loved for yourself, or not—of being in any case without duplicity.
Johnson has given us plenty of reason not to trust this judgment. That it starts with "to tell the truth" is the first hint and "I told myself" the second. Isabel is no piker when it comes to duplicity. As we shall soon, Isabel definitely thinks men are a quarry worth hunting even if not the only. "Only" only set up a false dichotomy.

The deeper issue, I think, is the notion of being "loved for yourself". That strikes me as an empty and mildly narcissistic pursuit.

More to come ...

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