“We know a lesser life does not seem lesser to the person who leads one,” wrote the novelist and critic Diane Johnson in 1972. “His life is very real to him; he is not a minor figure in it.” This wise and witty insight appears in The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, Johnson’s monograph on Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith. The adulterous wife of the celebrated Victorian writer George Meredith, the spirited Mary Ellen is one of many “lesser” figures, all too frequently female, who have been more or less excised from the historical record. Johnson’s masterful biography paints an evocative portrait of a woman with grand intellectual ambitions—and thereby dignifies a figure first vilified and then forgotten by most chroniclers of the period.
Johnson’s commitment to remembering the forgotten and humanizing the dehumanized is palpable not just in The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith but throughout her work. In her 2014 memoir-cum-family genealogy, Flyover Lives, Johnson recalls how she “became especially interested in some testimonies by long-departed great-grandmothers, simple stories but all the rarer because the lives of prairie women have usually been lost. Perhaps prairie women at the end of the 18th century didn’t have the leisure to pick up their pens, or maybe they didn’t think their lives were of interest.” But for Johnson, the flyover and lesser lives, so often dismissed as uninteresting, deserve the most scrupulous literary attention. Many of the superb essays she has written for The New York Review of Books mount defenses of women who have gone unappreciated, and her fiction, too, is populated by heroines all too apt to be trivialized.
In each of her 12 deft and diverting (if sometimes frothy) novels, there is a woman who seems, at first glance, to be abjectly ordinary. In Persian Nights, a finalist for the 1987 Pulitzer Prize and perhaps her best work of fiction, there’s Chloe Fowler, a superficially cheerful but fundamentally dissatisfied California housewife who finds herself in Iran on the eve of the revolution. In Le Divorce, a finalist for the 1997 National Book Award, there’s Isabel Walker, a seemingly ditzy but ultimately canny film school dropout visiting her sister in Paris. And in Johnson’s latest, Lorna Mott Comes Home, there’s the eponymous Lorna Mott, an American woman “of a certain age” who toys with the idea of leaving her French husband of 20 years and returning to her native San Francisco.
Lorna Mott Comes Home has all the elements of a quintessential Johnson novel: the independent female protagonist, slighted but not cowed by men who routinely underestimate her considerable powers; the philandering husband, usually a Frenchman; the hapless Americans committing shameful gaucheries abroad; the devious plotting, thickened with hints of crime and mystery; the large and complexly entangled cast of characters; and the delightfully arch prose.
In Johnson’s previous novels, these threads wind together to form ornate tapestries. This time around, the parts never cohere into an elegant whole. Instead, Lorna Mott Comes Home feels cluttered with events, like a TV series with so many subplots that we scarcely have time to take stock of one arc before we are catapulted into the next. Of course, a disjointed novel could suit our agonized and atomized moment, when it is so difficult for individuals to discern their place in a broader community. Indeed, much of Lorna’s disaffection stems from her suspicion that she no longer fits into American society, which in any case appears to be unraveling. But Lorna Mott Comes Home is less a self-consciously fragmented commentary on America’s fragmentation than a confused compendium of scattered characters and dramas. Johnson has often managed to enlarge even the smallest lives, but in her latest, the lives at stake are so hastily sketched that they remain diminutive and difficult to believe in.
Diane Johnson is an unlikely Parisian. Born in Moline, Ill., in 1934, she regarded even nearby cities as impossibly exotic for most of her childhood. As she recollects in Flyover Lives, with the exception of her father, none of her “relatives had been anywhere else; tales were not told about distant places, only about Bloomfield, or over to Pontiac or Muscatine or faraway Des Moines.” But her upbringing did not prevent her from dreaming, as she puts it, “of escape.”
Her first escape came in 1953, when she fled not to Paris but to America’s own great metropolis: New York, where she was one of 20 young women in a competitive summer internship program at Mademoiselle magazine. Another member of her cohort was a prodigy by the name of Sylvia Plath, who subsequently fictionalized her experiences at the magazine in The Bell Jar. As they had been for Plath, the relentless rhythms of the city were anathema to Johnson, then a student at what was nominally a women’s college and functionally a finishing school: It offered, and she took, the very course about “Marriage and the Family” that Betty Friedan went on to pillory. Compelled to train for a career as an “airline stewardess, secretary, teacher, [or] nurse,” Johnson had only ever dabbled in literary pursuits—and had never lived anywhere even a little bit loud or chaotic. Though she found New York daunting and its denizens abrasive, it was there that she first encountered people who “lived by writing, and were serious, even fierce, about it.”
She embraced this fierceness herself when she moved to California with her first husband, before she had finished college. While her four young children were napping, she befriended the novelist Alison Lurie, worked toward a PhD in English at UCLA, and completed her first two novels, both of them set in Southern California. By the time she had divorced and remarried in the late 1960s, this time to a successful pulmonologist, she had published Fair Game, a romantic farce, and Loving Hands at Home, a comedy about promiscuous Mormons. Further novels about Californian intrigues followed in the 1970s, but it was in 1987, with the release of Persian Nights, that Johnson evolved into a writer concerned primarily with Americans flailing overseas. After her husband’s 1994 retirement, the couple began splitting their time between San Francisco and Paris, and shortly thereafter, Johnson began work on the comedies of manners for which she is best known.
Whether they are set at home or abroad, Johnson’s fictions have always been united by a common ethic and sensibility. She has always attempted to honor “lesser lives”; she has always aspired to wryness without nihilism; and she has always been staunchly feminist. I use the last term advisedly: Johnson is not an activist and has never been formally affiliated with any political campaigns, nor is she up-to-date on the latest developments in feminist scholarship. Nonetheless, almost all of Johnson’s writing mounts implicit arguments against the impulse to treat women not as people but as fragile ingenues in need of special protections, representatives of a permanent victim class, or, worst of all, ornamental afterthoughts. She pays the first Mrs. Meredith what she takes to be the ultimate compliment when she writes, “Mary Ellen thought of herself as a person, as Victorian women often did not.” Some may object to her emphasis on individualism, as she acknowledged in her response to a letter to the editor in The New York Review of Books accusing her of devaluing care work. Her interlocutor uses “the word ‘individualistic’ [as] a term of reproach,” Johnson wrote, but to her, “it is not. I would prefer a society in which all individuals are encouraged to do what interests them or that they have some ability for, and where women are individuals.”
In both her novels and her criticism, Johnson allows women to be individuals. Still, her fiction is almost always richly social: Characters are embedded in intricate communal networks, and drama is generated by cultural clashes. As she once told an interviewer, “It’s kind of the opposite of a lot of people’s writing…where the complexity of the protagonist, the disturbances, very often the psychological evolution of the character, is the subject. I think I’m more interested in the society that surrounds the person.”
Because Johnson is mainly preoccupied with what she has called “the reification…of Americanness” abroad, the ordeal of being a bungling American in Europe, she is often described as an heir to Henry James. Tonally and even temperamentally, she is not much like the Master: Her prose is crisp and droll where his is elaborate, her mode comic where his is grave. But she is drawn to Jamesian scenarios. Her fiction is haunted by the specter of the marriage plot, which it interrogates and subverts. As she wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2005, “It may be that the marriage plot itself has seen its day, and in these times of redefined families, plots will change.”
Many of her novels center on moments of romantic redefinition. The first of Johnson’s three celebrated books about Americans in France, Le Divorce, details the acrimonious divorce of the title, between an American poet and an adulterous French painter. The poet’s younger sister, in town for a supportive visit, is whisked off into a liaison with a married statesman. Johnson’s 2000 Le Mariage, the second book of the trilogy, ends with a marriage, but both bride and groom are beset by doubts. They go through with their wedding unenthusiastically, as if marriage were necessary but unpleasant, not unlike a medical procedure. The night before the event, the husband-to-be jokes to a friend, “ ’I’ve begun to think we’re making a big mistake,’…hoping by his tone to indicate he really didn’t mean this, though he did.” Meanwhile, an American actress with a moody husband begins an affair with her married neighbor. L’Affaire (2003), the final book in the trio, makes good on its title: A newly minted Silicon Valley billionaire, Amy Hawkins, comes to France in search of “culture,” which she pursues by sleeping with a married Austrian and a married Frenchman.
Affairs are to Johnson what marriage was to Austen: Almost all of her novels build up to their consummation. But while acts of infidelity provide essential narrative scaffolding, they are also framed as casual occurrences. In Johnson’s fiction, everyone is engaged in “rather unconcerned adultery,” as the narrator of Le Divorce observes. An affair can “almost be a settled thing, one of those social facts people accept with a wink, referring to the well-known Wednesdays (or whenever) of two people, married to others, whose irregular love had been sanctified by a kind of community consensus.”
Grander concerns loom in the background: the conflict in Serbia in Le Divorce, the fall of the shah in Persian Nights, gun violence in America throughout. But Johnson’s primary concern is domestic, which is not to say that it is apolitical. Her married heroines are not leading lives of quiet desperation—” ’quiet desperation’ being too ridiculously dire a phrase for two privileged people to claim,” she writes of the adulterers in Le Mariage—but they are leading lives that are arid and stifling. Infidelity is their chosen form of rebellion against disappointment and dissatisfaction—not that they are ever blubbering or tragic. Instead, these female characters are consummately practical and unsentimental, if a little dismayed to find themselves incapable of the extravagant romanticism so often expected of them. In Persian Nights, Chloe Fowler felt “inwardly ordinary and uncomplicated…. She regretted this curse of reasonableness, and longed to be, but knew she could never be, flamboyant.” L’Affaire’s Amy Hawkins is in a similar predicament. She recognizes that she is “impervious,” but she wishes for “her heart to be broken, or in some other way to indulge the potentiality for emotion and passion that she knew must lie somewhere beneath her practical commonsense surface”—or, at least, she “hoped” it did.
Bracingly sensible as Johnson’s heroines are, their whirlwind romances yield complex and even operatic plots, reminiscent of the theatrical storylines in the novels of Thomas Hardy. The milieu, too, has a Victorian flavor: The characters are white, comfortable if not fabulously wealthy, knowledgeable about designer clothing and faience, and often reflexively racist, if officially right-thinking. (In Le Divorce, the narrator’s sister tells her not to mind the African neighbors: “You don’t have to be afraid of them here, you know, they’re nice Africans.”) Like Victorian novels, Johnson’s books also brim with aphoristic treasures. Of a novelist in Le Mariage, she writes, “Her…line of work had taught her to value experiences, but, like all mothers, she didn’t want her children to have to have them.” When one character in L’Affaire asks where a dead person is now, his interlocutor replies, “I assume that is a practical and not a metaphysical question.” Comedies of mutual misunderstanding abound: In one scene, a French hostess with American guests makes “a great show of things she had heard Americans like, like ice cubes,” which a waitress dispenses into glasses with tongs.
All of this makes for enjoyable, socially observant, and funny reading. Compared with many works of wan, thin, and self-involved contemporary fiction, which strain for an unearned profundity, Johnson’s light, winking novels sparkle. Amy Hawkins is “accused of frivolity” when she announces that she plans to take cooking and French lessons in France, but she isn’t “troubled by the shallowness of these pursuits; looked at one way, everything was shallow, and from another perspective everything had innate interest and the power to enlarge.” The same might be said of Johnson’s oeuvre: At its best, it dares to take seriously so much that is often deemed feminine or frivolous, and it is therefore amusingly enlarging; at its worst, it is formulaic, too much like a glib romantic comedy. Unfortunately, Johnson’s latest novel is not enlarging but claustrophobic.
Lorna Mott Comes Home has many characters in addition to the obligatory Lorna, a freelance art historian who has decided to leave her longtime French husband and move back to the United States. The husband in question, a retired curator named Armand-Loup, is affable and charismatic, but he is also “a notorious tombeur—that is, skirt chaser.” As Lorna has grown older, he has taken to wooing “ever-younger young women,” a practice that his wife understandably finds insulting. In the wake of his latest affair, Lorna decides to return to San Francisco in hopes of reviving her languishing career.
Armand is Lorna’s second husband, and San Francisco is where she lived with the first, Ran, who is now married to L’Affaire’s Amy Hawkins. It is also where her three children live with their floundering families. There is Peggy, divorced and struggling to pay off her loan; Ham, a wastrel whose wife is expecting a baby; and Curt, a seemingly successful tech entrepreneur who has recently absconded to Thailand, leaving his wife, Donna, to sort out what prove to be shady dealings. Hovering in the background is a motley assortment of supporting players: an amorous reverend in search of a wife, Peggy’s beautiful daughter Julie, an urbane British politician, and a 20-year-old Brown dropout named Ian who is seemingly devoid of personality—but who will play an unexpectedly large role in the book.
Johnson never specifies exactly when the novel takes place, but as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Lorna has returned to a haggard San Francisco still reeling from the effects of the 2008 financial meltdown. To one character’s horror, newscasters are reporting, in tones of “sympathy that barely conceal their scorn,” on newly homeless people “living in their cars.” Lorna is dismayed by the state of the country in general and astonished by the astronomical rents in her old neighborhood, so much higher than when she left. (She is curiously insulated from American affairs; it is quite a feat to have so thoroughly avoided articles about how the tech industry has transformed the Bay Area housing market.) Financial anxiety, especially over eviction, is in the air: Peggy accepts what is in all likelihood a predatory loan, while Donna finds herself unable to pay off a $3 million mortgage on the mansion that Curt purchased before his abrupt and unexplained disappearance.
Lorna herself struggles to find an apartment that’s within her dwindling means. The neighborhoods where she naively hoped to live have become unaffordable, and she fears she will deplete her savings as she searches for employment after her long hiatus from full-time lecturing and writing. When she visits a bookstore, excited to sign copies of her new essay collection, she is disappointed to learn that none of the shop’s employees have heard of her; they haven’t even bothered to display her book on the shelves. She feels her irrelevance more and more acutely, and by the time she moves into a ramshackle apartment, she finds herself recalling her marriage fondly. But it isn’t Armand-Loup that she misses: It’s the sprawling country house they shared, with its huge kitchen and shiny amenities. In Lorna Mott Comes Home, the erotic energies directed at married Frenchmen in the rest of Johnson’s corpus are redirected toward the pursuit of desirable real estate.
Johnson’s frequent and somewhat hectoring discussions of her characters’ economic troubles give her latest novel a realistic cast and an admirable political dimension—but they also tend to make it unpleasant to slog through. They are trotted out almost as recitations, without much in the way of analysis, contextualization, or embellishment. Indeed, Lorna Mott Comes Home is full of strange repetitions, perhaps the result of poor copy- editing. Yet even if they are an intentional feature of the book, they yield frustrating redundancies.
Characters we have already met are introduced as if we had not seen them before. At one point, Ran becomes irritated, as if for the first time, by something that already irritated him several pages earlier. Confusion is compounded by inconsistency: One character decides not to sell her house, then, pages later, thinks of “her wish to sell the house.” Ian has “no interest in fifteen-year-old girls” when we first encounter him at a charity benefit with Ran’s 15-year-old daughter, Gilda, but shortly thereafter, we learn that he has deflowered and impregnated her. Ran, reasonably enough, is furious with his daughter’s seducer, but later we learn that he “initially accepted Ian’s role in Gilda’s plight as accidental, incorporeal, almost as if an airborne seedpod had drifted by her and was merely inhaled”—not a plausible attitude in the father of a violated 15-year-old in any case.
Lorna’s quieter struggles to adjust to her increasingly advanced age and her new environs are perhaps the most engrossing and believable parts of the novel. Though she sets out to “prove, to herself if to no one else, that you can make a new life at any age,” she is not quite successful. Financial tribulations aside, she remains unable to adjust to life in a society that fetishizes female youthfulness in much the way that her husband does. As she contemplates the prospect of resuscitating her lapsed career, she wonders whether “her own age and grandmotherhood” would “detract or add to her authority as an art critic. For a man, it would add, or be irrelevant. For a woman, she didn’t know.” In the friend’s apartment where she is staying as she seeks her own lodgings, things have “the brave but losing look familiar among Lorna’s contemporaries, of belonging to a downsizing person of a grandmotherly age and former affluence.”
At first, Lorna is so happy to be back in San Francisco that she can overlook many small inconveniences. She is enthralled by “the idea of wonderful America, its big mountains and expansive generosity”; she had missed enchiladas; and she was sick of being “the awkward American woman, never quite right, said to once have had some career in America, but never, ever getting the cheeses straight.” But if she was never quite at home in France, she finds she is no longer quite at home in California, either. Now the Bay and the bridges, which she thought of as “positive attributes” when she was in France, strike her “as features of the punishing commutes exasperated people were forced into daily.” She hurts her ankle and, lacking health insurance, is appalled at the cost of her treatment. In France, there are “trains and medical care,” while in America, people are “being evicted and living in containers.” To her chagrin, Lorna discovers that she is in a permanent state of exile, a full inhabitant of neither her native country nor her adoptive one. Worse, her native country has become more monstrous than she remembered. Johnson harps on its monstrousness by sounding the same notes—mostly about the vicissitudes of the housing market—over and over. If the results do not make for especially scintillating reading, they are at least somewhat justified: Lorna’s difficulties are oppressive in part because they are so unremitting.
Despite the many moving sections about Lorna’s decline, the focus of Lorna Mott Comes Home is not, by the end, its eponym’s spiritual vagrancy and attendant turmoil, nor the United States’ larger injustices. Rather, Ian and Gilda’s fling and the ensuing pregnancy, which Gilda is determined to see through to the end, take center stage. Why Ran and Amy, Silicon Valley progressives with money to spare, would not do more to persuade their 15-year-old daughter, who is already beset by medical problems, to refrain from carrying her child to term is hard enough to grasp—but why they think it is expedient for her to marry Ian is even more incomprehensible. All Johnson has to say in the way of clarification is that they, too, cannot “explain the vestigial docility that was making them make [Gilda] conform to the world’s belief in marriage”—not that the world, even in the practically medieval days of 2008, is especially inclined to believe in marriage between minors and their statutory rapists.
Johnson can do, and has done, better, both in her most accomplished novels and especially in her sharp criticism, which is reliably allergic to cant and unreason. The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith, in particular, is a masterpiece that deserves to be hailed as a classic. In it, she fictionalizes history, endowing desiccated facts with a fresh vividness that brings them back to life. In contrast, Lorna Mott Comes Home treats fiction as history and thereby leaves its characters virtually for dead. It is to Johnson’s credit that she takes on timely themes—a post–Great Recession novel about Americans and Americanness that made no mention of the country’s failure to serve its struggling demographics would not ring true—but the information, details, and lists of events she offers up are schematic and bereft of experiential texture. Though she reiterates the bleak realities, she neither animates nor analyzes them. For this reason, the lesser lives Johnson hopes to magnify end up feeling shrunken.