Diane Johnson specializes in highly readable novels that offer pointed cultural critiques buried within sometimes embarrassingly romantic stories. In her most famous novel, "Le Divorce," she used her years in France to detail the faux pas that poisoned relations between in-laws from the dual realities of Paris and Santa Barbara: A French woman takes one piece of cheese during the cheese course, whereas the American assumes one of each kind makes her a gracious guest; an American family thinks a man taking up with another woman should end a marriage, while a French family thinks divorce is a little extreme.
But as wise as her observations are, Johnson usually falters when she tries to make her upper-middle-class characters respond to important international events. In "Persian Nights," the simmering tensions of revolutionary Iran are reduced to an exotic sensual backdrop, and the novel ends with giddy Westerners escaping with Persian rugs and little growth or insight. Johnson's aim is satire, of course, but her perspective and style are simply too patrician to ever attain the distance necessary to mock her characters' entitled attitudes.
In her new novel, "Lulu in Marrakech," Johnson again sends a privileged American abroad and, again, most of the novel is spent ruminating on our heroine's romantic life. But, like all of Johnson's novels, "Lulu" scatters around enough cogent cultural analysis to elevate the book above genre romantic fiction. And Johnson once again spins a story that, in spite of its cut-from-the-headlines premise of international terror and espionage, is really just a fun, girly, story about sex and exotic shopping.
Lulu Sawyer is an inexperienced CIA agent sent to Marrakech, Morocco, to investigate the funneling of money from wealthy sources to radical Islamic groups. Her cover is as a nongovernmental organization-type literacy advocate. She's staying at the home of English businessman Ian Drumm, whom she met in Kosovo. Although Ian is ignorant of Lulu's real employment, he is apparently as eager as Lulu is to rekindle their earlier affair.
Lulu's hopes of a cozy Moroccan love nest are dashed, however, when she finds Ian's home crowded with a group of varied and suspicious house guests. Will some of them turn out to be involved in terror? Which wife will turn out to be the best companion for shopping in the souk? And most important, as Lulu is a Diane Johnson heroine, is another woman in their social circle sleeping with Ian?
Although action scenes of tackling suicide bombers and roughly interrogating suspects ensue, "Lulu in Marrakech" somehow manages to turn grim doings that would be horrifying in real life into a fictional lark. But no one reads Diane Johnson to prepare for a United Nation speech. Johnson can hang up all the current events and foreign policy trappings she wants, but underneath thin intrigue, "Lulu in Marrakech" is just a smart, contemporary, chick-y romance.
Former Minnesotan Cherie Parker is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She blogs at thelitlife.com.