An American abroad returns to San Francisco in Diane Johnson’s tart, smart, new novel.
“I see myself as a Midwestern/Bay Area person who happens to live in France,” explains Diane Johnson in a Zoom call from her apartment in Paris, where she has been living part time since 1995, not long after her husband John F. Murray retired from his esteemed position as chief of pulmonary and critical care at San Francisco General Hospital. It’s been a difficult year and a half — Murray died in March 2020 of acute respiratory distress syndrome, worsened by COVID-19. Yet Johnson, best known for her novels of Americans abroad, including Le Divorce (a National Book Award finalist that was adapted into the 2003 film starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts), L’Affaire and Le Mariage, has handled it with admirable stoicism (she survived a minor COVID bout herself).
Her new book, Lorna Mott Comes Home, flips the script. This time, instead of featuring an American ingenue abroad, she tells the tale of Lorna Mott, an older American woman who returns to San Francisco after she’s had enough of the serial in fidelities of Armand-Loup Dumas, the Frenchman she married after her first husband left her for a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur. But San Francisco has changed, and so has Lorna, who can’t help noticing the rise in homelessness, real estate costs and unreliable bus transportation, let alone the complications of dealing with the problems of her children and extended family. Johnson knows this terrain well — the Telegraph Hill home she shared with Murray was once featured by Merla Zellerbach in a Gazette piece, and she currently keeps an apartment in Russian Hill, where Lorna lands when she returns. There’s even a satirical scene in the new novel where she describes an event at George and Charlotte Mailliard Shultz’s thinly disguised Green Street penthouse, noting the hired costumed Beefeaters — “men wearing top hats, red tights, and red-skirted minidresses with white ruffs and crimson stockings” who were there to welcome British visitors.
She cuts an unassuming modesty in conversation, but Johnson has long been part of a formidable circle of Bay Area writers, including her close friend Alice Adams, whom she was introduced to by the poet Anne Perlman (spouse of famed San Francisco Chronicle science writer David Perlman). She was even admitted to a men’s literary circle that included Herb Caen, Barnaby Conrad, Blair Fuller and Squaw Valley Writers Conference co-founder Oakley Hall.
Though her recent books are often described as comedies of manners in the tradition of Edith Wharton and Henry James — both writers she admires — she has also delved into darker material. Years ago, The Shadow Knows, about a young woman who fears she’s being stalked, intrigued Stanley Kubrick so much that he flew Johnson to London to co-write the script for The Shining.
Her other ventures in the film world included an abortive remake of Grand Hotel for MGM to be set in Las Vegas and directed by Mike Nichols, which was abandoned after the MGM Grand Hotel burnt down in 1980. She also worked with Francis Ford Coppola on a project about the AIDS crisis, in the course of which she met a “much younger’’ Anthony Fauci. “Francis invited all these health directors up to his place [in Rutherford] with the idea that they would somehow arrive at a cure for AIDS,’’ says Johnson. “Fauci came, and so did Francoise Barré-Sinoussi,” who later shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the roots of the virus. Coppola had them doing acting exercises, she recalls, laughing. “They had to mime the first thing they did in the morning…’’
She’s also written a biography of Dashiell Hammett, and Lesser Lives, a well-received work about the seemingly obscure figure of Mary Ellen Peacock, the first wife of Victorian writer George Meredith, which was reissued last year by The New York Review of Books.
The Paris-set books have largely been a function of her changed circumstances, but Johnson sees the distinction between light and serious fiction as a false choice — her work deals with family, marriage, divorce and human emotions, regardless of setting. “That’s very much my world, so those are my themes,’’ says Johnson. She’s a long way from her childhood in Moline, Illinois, but hasn’t forgotten her roots. She keeps in touch with Bay Area family and friends on FaceTime, and, although obviously at home in French society, feels the pain her characters face as innocents abroad.“I, at least, have often felt misunderstood,” she says. “People say, ‘Oh that is so American.’ You don’t know what they mean, but you know it’s not a compliment.”
No spoilers here, but as the new book unfolds, Lorna — and Armand-Loup — come to a deeper, more compassionate understanding of the issues that drove them apart, along with an acceptance of the inevitable flaws of human nature. “That’s very much my temperament,” the author says. “I have no scruples about judging, but I don’t think it means good fiction. I think the readers should decide.”