Teresa Waugh

A bad Samaritan

Text settings


Diane Johnson

Penguin/ Michael Joseph, pp. 426, £

An avalanche in a French ski resort is thought by some to have been caused by American warplanes flying low in order to refuel on their way to bomb some hapless Balkan country. This is the first clue to one of the main themes in Diane Johnson’s L’Affaire: the dislike, mistrust and misunderstanding of all nations for one another, the unlikelihood of living in harmony with foreigners, the ingrained prejudices of even supposedly intelligent people and the impossibility that ever the twain should meet. Unfortunately Johnson makes no allowances for the quick-wittedness of her reader, so she lays it on not so much with a trowel as with a sledgehammer.

A compatriot tells our heroine, Amy, a Californian dotcom millionairess, that Americans abroad must come to appreciate the ‘shared status of pariah’. He has already claimed that the French only smoke to show the Americans what sissies they are. So far so good, but as the book goes on various characters express every imaginable cliché: the French are lacking in imagination and are repellently literal; we English have thick ankles, are crassly material and frosty and most of our daughters are called Lavinia — Lavinia? Americans are brash, arrogant bullies with no understanding of other cultures; a French ski-instructor causes offence by failing to fill a North African’s wineglass because he presumes him to be a teetotal Muslim; the French language is limited; English girls are touchy about French girls who are all so pretty and chic; the Japanese are cruel, the French pragmatic, the English red-faced. It goes on and on and on. As if we hadn’t got the message, we are still being told on page 453 that the French don’t like spices.

So Amy is a nice, successful, well-meaning, very serious young woman who, having made her fortune the way people do these days, goes to France to trace her European roots, to learn the language, to improve her skiing and to absorb some of that old-world culture. She is staying in the H