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Et alors! Diane Johnson’s long-awaited novel, Lorna Mott Comes Home, is here!
For fans of her trilogy of novels about Americans in France (Le Divorce, Le Mariage, L’Affaire) it’s been a long wait. Was the wait worth it?
The short answer is “Mais, oui!”
Lorna Mott is a Californian woman “of a certain age” (late 50s? early 60s?) who, after 20 years of living in France decides she’s had enough of her French husband’s philandering ways. She decides to leave him, and returns to San Francisco, where she intends to relaunch her career as an art historian on the lecture circuit, and try to be of help to the three adult children from her first marriage, all of whom are in one kind of trouble or another. (Mostly various kinds of financial trouble.)
But almost immediately she experiences the truth that you really can’t go home again, especially after 20 years away. San Francisco is not as she remembered it.
When she left France for good she hadn’t had a realistic picture of her native land in her mind; she hadn’t…read about all the shootings, home invasions, homeless people, crashing economy, or heard the stupefying cost of turning your ankle or…of sending twins to nursery school.
It’s not only the overall situation in the nation that is upsetting, though. Lorna also finds pretty quickly that her career as a well-respected and in-demand lecturer is not going to be so easy to get going again, if at all, and her first few experiences with it are disappointing encounters with audiences that are really not all that interested in the fascinating history of medieval tapestries from Angers, her current academic passion.
The story is set sometime early in the Obama years — exactly what year is not clear, but it’s clear that it is whenever it was that the 2008 economic crisis was accelerating and spreading its ill effects like a cancer throughout the country.
As in Le Divorce, nearly every chapter begins with an aphorism, but unlike in Le Divorce, which was published nearly 25 years ago, this time all of the aphorisms are written by the author herself. And with 25 years of additional “lived experience” she has plenty of additional wisdom of her own to offer readers: no need to call on the likes of Emerson, Benjamin Constant, and Montaigne this time for the pithy, sometimes witty, sometimes rueful, always wise words about life that begin each chapter.
We must be prepared for things turning out differently than we expected.
They say there is no such thing as coincidence, but we have all had coincidences.
Someone will always say “I told you so.”
The quotidian is the enemy of the ideal.
We have to let go of our grievances, as we all know, but there’s something we like about them.
The past has lessons for us, though we may not like to dredge them up.
I will not attempt to summarize the story’s fun, and deliciously complicated plot. Suffice it to say that there are a number of unexpected twists and turns, and that though plenty of true-to-life, difficult situations unfold in the course of the story (neighbors’ homes being broken into, unplanned pregnancies, missing offspring, threatened foreclosures), as the plot advances there is also brilliant comedic collision involving various members of Lorna’s extended family that occasionally moves into the realm of farce. And — because Johnson is such a masterful storyteller — these two things, near-tragedy and chuckle-out-loud farce — coexist quite comfortably.
Throughout the book, the challenges of a growing-older-but-not-yet-old woman are explored with sensitivity and depth, as well as, occasionally, observed with gentle amusement. On the whole, Lorna, who is far from “past her prime,” is dealing pretty well with the challenges of aging. Though she suffers some of the embarrassing day-to-day occurrences (falling off a bus, being called “dear” by the kind woman who helps her up), on the whole she feels that “really late middle age was not so bad. She had never thought of it with dread but now she appreciated its true comforts.” And at one point, when she is called upon to help her estranged first husband in what could have been an awkward situation, she feels instead, “a familiar joy…that of being of use, and trusted.”
The themes that resonated the most for me were ruminations on ending up where you began (Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?). Also reflections on the transience of human love, but also evidence of its tenacious permanence, even in relationships that have been abandoned, or grossly neglected.
In the end the reader feels that all will be well, somehow, or at least if it will not, we’re not going to know exactly how it all turns out. I think it is not giving away too much to say that, as in Le Divorce, the book ends without tidily tying up all the loose ends. (After all, isn’t it that way in life?) And, like Le Divorce, it ends with a question.
One of the special pleasures of reading this book is the pleasure of benefitting from the wisdom that continues to grow with increasing age, at least among some people, certainly including Diane Johnson. In this book she is at the top of her game.
What will she do next? We’ll just have to wait and see. For myself, I intend to back up and read some of her not-about-France books, which I have not read yet. (P.S. Hint for all you France-obsessed readers out there: if you’re wondering what happened to Isabel Walker after the story told in Le Divorce, I’m told (by the author) that you should read Lulu in Marrakech. That’s next on my list…and after that The Shadow Knows, and Persian Nights, both highly recommended by readers I respect.
Purchase a copy for yourself at your favorite independent bookstore, like the Red Wheelbarrow or Shakespeare & Company in Paris. The book is also available through online shops like Indiebound and Bookshop.org.
Lead photo credit : Book Review: Lorna Mott Comes Home: A Novel by Diane Johnson (C) Amazon, Diane Johnson