Diane Johnson takes on an elusive subject in her latest trenchant transatlantic comedy of manners: Happiness.
“Happiness was like one of those floaters in your eye that you can never focus on, intangible and fleeting,” observes her pragmatic heroine, who after 20 years of marriage to a charming but chronically unfaithful Frenchman has decided it’s time to move back to her native San Francisco.
With “Lorna Mott Comes Home,” Johnson returns to the same terrain covered in her beloved trio of novels about American expats living in France – “Le Divorce,” “Le Mariage,” and “L’Affaire” – and again plays the contrasts between French and American culture to highlight the strengths and absurdities of each. But the overarching focus this time around is on 60-something Lorna Mott’s determination to set both herself and her struggling grown children on a happier path.
Lorna is tired of her playboy husband Armand-Loup Dumas’ embarrassing “wild infidelity” – which made her an object of pity in the small village of Pont-les-Puits, where they’ve lived since he retired from his job as a curator at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. She hopes to revive her career as an art lecturer and reconnect with her three grown children from her first marriage. “No matter where you are,” she reasons, “you don’t stop being American.”
But it’s 2008, and Lorna finds her beloved Bay Area slammed by astronomical housing prices, a rise in violent crime, and rampant homelessness. The lecture circuit, alas, is not what it was when she left 20 years earlier; much has moved online, and contentious religious fundamentalists now outnumber art lovers at her talks on medieval French tapestries.
And Lorna can no longer ignore the fact that her daughter and two sons, all in their early 40s, are struggling financially. Her first husband, Randall Mott, a retired dermatologist who's wrapped up in his younger second wife, a Silicon Valley multimillionaire, and their 15-year-old daughter, seems disinclined to help them.
Lorna wants to help – and she also wants to feel needed – but she has “a firm policy of not seeming to intervene in the affairs of her children.” Note the crucial qualifier, “seeming to.”
“Which is worse, to meddle or withdraw?” Lorna wonders as she notices her divorced daughter’s excess weight and unflattering clothes, and becomes aware of her younger son’s unsafe living situation and ailing pregnant wife. Meanwhile, her elder son, a former hedge-fund manager, has run off to an undisclosed locale in Thailand following his recovery from a near-fatal bike accident, leaving behind a wife, young twins, a jumbo mortgage, and tangled finances.
Lorna muses, “One of the hardest tasks of Motherhood, she had always found, was keeping this delicate balance between helping children maintain their self-esteem on the one hand, and giving them the requisite little pushes from time to time.”
But Lorna, accustomed to being solvent if not rich, also quickly realizes how helpless she is without funds. She can barely find an affordable apartment, never mind bail out her children. “So much of her life had always been predicated on her having a support system – male, in general, given the way society was presently constituted,” she reflects.
Lorna is taken aback by how much harder life is in San Francisco than in France, where “there were trains and medical care.” She bemoans the traffic, her dingy apartment, the high crime rate, “the sanctimonious health preoccupations of Americans.” Of course, none of these criticisms of American culture are new, but they still land sharply.
On the flip side, Lorna realizes that she misses Armand’s “cheerful hedonism and real erudition,” and how life with him was “so emphatically rooted in the mire of the physical.” She corrects herself: “Not ‘mire,’ wrong word – but pleasure. Pleasure in the physical.” But, she notes, “Joy seemed in short supply hereabouts. Was there more joy in France than in America?”
When Armand flies to America on some business – including a visit to his latest lover – and asks if she’s content, Lorna wonders, “Was ‘happy’ an operative term in her life anymore?”
Johnson writes with assured brio and wit – although with some repetitiveness. She spins a plot busy with crises, beginning with a mudslide that exposes and jumbles the gravesites in the Pont-les-Puits village cemetery. (Among the affected graves is that of a posthumously appreciated American painter with whom Lorna was close.) Much of the drama revolves around a teen pregnancy, which triggers alarm, consternation, soul-searching, and multiple emergencies. Through it all, Johnson fondly ribs her characters – for their avarice more than anything, as they all angle for a cut of Randall’s rich wife’s pie. There are ridiculous complications, and complications to the complications.
About half of the novel’s 54 short chapters announce their themes with the sort of punchy, wise bons mots for which Johnson is known: “Loyalty is a virtue everyone admires, especially the disloyal.” “Parenthood hath murdered sleep.” “To see the right thing to do and not to do it is cowardice.”
Despite its incisive barbs, “Lorna Mott Comes Home” is an affectionate romp of a book. Who can resist a character who gallantly proffers her Hermès silk scarf to swaddle a newborn? Johnson’s fans should lap this one up, along with the duck à l’orange served in the French hospital cafeteria.
In addition to the Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.