Friday, August 10, 2012

"Lulu in Marrakech," by Diane Johnson

Like Alix Kates Shulman, about whose novel “Menage” I posted last time, novelist Diane Johnson was born in the early 1930s. Both of these writers started writing about 1970, and now in their late 70s are still publishing. This is impressive and inspiring. Today I am posting about Diane Johnson’s 2008 novel, “Lulu in Marrakech,” which I just finished listening to in my car on CD (Books on Tape, 2008). I have read most of Johnson’s novels over the years, so when this novel came out, I thought about reading it, but somehow it didn’t sound appealing, probably because the main character is a spy, although a nontypical one, and I am not at all drawn to spy stories (even knowing this novel – despite the spy character - wasn’t actually in that genre). But when looking for books on CD for a recent driving trip, I saw this one on the library shelf and decided to try it. Johnson’s novels, such as her French trilogy (“L’Affaire,” “Le Mariage,” and “Le Divorce”) tend to be beautifully written but light and entertaining rather than profound, although they do make interesting points about marriage and about cultural differences. “Lulu” too has some of this light, comic aspect. But it also reminded me of Johnson’s earlier (1998) novel, “Persian Nights,” about an American woman’s visit to Iran; it has some of the same balance of almost frivolous lightness and more intense political and cultural commentary. To me the main question about Lulu is whether she is intended by the author to be taken as a serious character, or a sort of parody, or a representative of the sort of clueless bungling that spies – American and otherwise – are sometimes known for…or some combination of these elements, or maybe something else entirely. The way Lulu is portrayed, as a kind of girly-girl and yet an independent and fearless woman, is intriguing. Overall I thought this novel was lesser Johnson, but I must admit I enjoyed it more than I expected to.

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