I’m writing this review on the one-year anniversary of our first lockdowns and of my own boxing match with the coronavirus. When one ticks off the wrenching losses due to the pandemic, the weight of it all is crushing—the lives gone, hearts broken, the financial collapses for so many and the money strains for most … Well, I don’t have to do your doom-scrolling for you. You know.
So, it seems churlish to talk about mourning the loss of pleasure. But what about the relief and flooding happiness that accompanies its re-introduction? That is the state I found myself in while reading Lorna Mott Comes Home, the divine Diane Johnson’s latest propulsive novel—her 12th—a layered yet airy confection. I felt like someone awakened from a coma to the taste of chocolate or the look on my own children’s faces when they first encountered ice cream, a wonderment that something this delicious might pass this way again.
The 87-year-old Ms. Johnson is the author of Le Marriage and Le Divorce and numerous other celebrated works of fiction and nonfiction. Here she rekindles her fascination with the cross-cultural complexities of Americans living in France.
Her heroine, Lorna Mott of the title, is an art historian in late middle age who has lived in Pont-les-Puits, a storybook village not far from Paris, for the last 20 years. She’d moved there for her handsome, charming, philandering second husband, Armand-Loup, but has recently tired of his feckless shenanigans—“begrudging both the time and expense of his adventures, the costs having risen with his weight, the girlfriends now younger, plainer and more expensive.”
Lorna takes advantage of a deus ex machina—a “grisly mudslide” that upends the local cemetery, scattering corpses and skeletons in its wake—to make her escape while the town inadequately scrambles to cope with its graveyard dishabille. Lorna’s departure is “impulsive yet planned,” and executed without bothering to inform her spouse of his abandonment, although on the train to the airport she receives a cold phone message from him: “Cherie, tu as oublié ton argenterie” (“Darling, you have forgotten your silverware”).
And so, Lorna, attractive and now Frenchified-elegant, returns home to San Francisco after two decades to the three now middle-aged children from a first marriage—each one in an intriguing pot-au-feu of trouble all their own—to help them, sure, but also to re-establish her academic career, most definitely, and “prove to herself, if to no one else, that you can make a new life at any age.” A girl after my own heart.
Lorna proves to be a double victim of her high own spirits and a wicked case of magical thinking, which quickly becomes apparent when she returns to a city that is no longer the one of her fading memories but now subject to the high rents and homelessness that go hand in hand with Silicon Valley–ization, a place she can ill afford. Add to this the disappointing, less-than-lukewarm reception to her professional declaration, “I’m back.” Lesser mortals’ spirits could be tested.
Two of Lorna’s children are also in sorry financial shape, and the third, following a hideous bike accident and long hospitalization, has deserted his long-suffering wife and toddler twins, running away to Thailand and leaving them with a $3 million mortgage and no visible means of support.
Lorna returns home to San Francisco to “prove to herself, if to no one else, that you can make a new life at any age.” A girl after my own heart.
Lorna’s first husband, Ran, a doctor, has had the exceeding good fortune to marry a younger, beautiful woman who not only loves him but has made her own dot-com fortune. He’s shown little interest in his children with Lorna, until now, but is a doting father to the ravishingly beautiful, diabetic, and quasi-albino 15-year-old daughter of his second marriage, Gilda, a sylvan creature of strange and imperturbable calm.
If this all sounds a bit hard to follow, it kind of is at first, but Johnson is a master plotter and soon these loose and lonely threads knot up into an unlikely but entertaining story that is hard to put down. While each character is motivated by their own selfish needs and wants, the question arises again and again of who and what is family, and does that matter in times of peril? Or are these possibly renewable ties born purely from plain old desperation?
Back in France, the mudslide has uncovered the bones of an old artist friend of Lorna’s, whom she is suddenly on the hook for re-interring, while Armand-Loup is angling for her to be in charge of said painter’s estate as he, too, is in need of cash and in danger of losing the lovely home they built together. (He also appears to be missing her at a time when she is questioning the hastiness of her own decisions.)
Johnson specializes in piercing, satirical wit, and though this novel’s various husbands, children, and grandchildren are at times clearly suffering, as is our heroine, I often found myself chuckling mordantly. “Lorna’s heart stirred with motherly concern. What would these people do without her, someday? They’d be fine, of course, she had already deserted them once already by going off to France.”
Plus, sex, love, art, fabulous food, tragedy, and contentment are all catnip for the housebound reader. It made me want to buy an airplane ticket (just this week, a tempting possibility?) and find a French village all my own.
How does that old song go? “If you can’t be with the one you love,” you might as well read about someone else’s messy fun in a book just like this one.
Helen Schulman is a New York City–based writer and professor. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, Come with Me