Diane Johnson has perfected the contemporary novel of manners. Or more particularly, she has mastered the expatriate version of such, a cross between Henry James’ American on European Tour and Jane Austen’s Social Commentary. In previous works, such as Le Divorce (1997), Le Mariage (2000), and L’Affaire (2003), Johnson’s central characters are invariably newly arrived Americans set adrift in European, mostly French-speaking, settings of subtlety and expatriate compromise. In her latest work, Lulu in Marrakech, Johnson relocates the setting from Europe to Morocco.
Amid the upscale social set and liberal deployment of untranslated French phrases, Johnson’s novels suggest a clinical subtext, a presentiment that the author is setting her characters up as unsuspecting subjects in a cleverly urbane experiment. That implication is made acute in Lulu owing to another significant deviation from Johnson’s normal method: Her lead character, Lulu Sawyer, is a CIA spook. Lulu’s assignment in Marrakech is to trace money from Islamic charities to terrorist organizations. Meantime, Lulu’s cover in Marrakech is a love interest, English businessman Ian Drumm, who may in fact be among her observational targets.
Johnson’s plots tend to be preciously crafted, a characteristic that can backfire (and which torpedoed the cinematic version of Le Divorce). In the present novel, that quality more often collides than colludes with the hard facts of intelligence gathering, North African culture, and Islamic fundamentalism. Moreover, the innocent-abroad-encountering-the-cultural-other trope doesn’t really work in a narrative couched in espionage. As a consequence, when Lulu describes her “ordinary-looking clock radio, so chockablock with useful capabilities” and her “James Bondish fountain pen,” are we to read this as satire? Does Lulu find the tools of the trade unnecessarily clever, or do these descriptions follow from Lulu’s insufferable naiveté?
Despite Johnson’s delicate language and at times convincing portrayal of foreign customs intersecting, the novel as a whole is unconvincing. Lulu—even her name suggests a mistake—qualifies as frontrunner in a Most Unsuited Literary Spy contest.