Diane Johnson's novels are, unfortunately, a long time coming. But when they arrive they're worth the wait: little gems of simple, beautifully wrought language, domestic comedies that study the lives of American ex-pats abroad. Having chosen to live their lives outside the United States, still, Johnson's heroines must figure out how to muddle through each day--even after years in their adopted countries--as fish out of water...or, at least, as fish in a new bowl with very different water indeed.
Lulu Sawyer is a spy. She's not a very good spy, swept up as she is by both her own personal drama and those of the people she's living among. At the opening of Lulu in Marrakech Lulu (her chosen, spy name, although it seems to suit her well) is just moving to North Africa on a new assignment. Information coming to her on a need-to-know basis as it does, and Lulu being an extremely junior member of the agency, she doesn't really know what her assignment is. However, she does get to move in with her new British boyfriend Ian and preside over his English country house in the desert where visiting poets, artists, and assorted eccentrics come and go.
A classic unreliable narrator--and a charming and engaging one, at that--Lulu is forever muddling her assignment, forgetting her tradecraft, and blurring the lines--or erasing them altogether--between work and personal life. We never really do find out exactly what Lulu's assignment is, but it's fun being along for the ride. She paints a vivid picture, through American eyes long accustomed to a European lens, of life in a culture so foreign as to be incomprehensible at times. In the end, Lulu moves on to a new assignment, in a more familiar milieu: England.
Let's hope Diane Johnson doesn't make us wait another eight or ten years for her next novel, and let's hope, as well, that it follows the further adventures of Lulu Sawyer.
Now reading: My Name is Will by Jess Winfield