two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-Lulu in MarrakechScholar and Pulitzer and Booker Prize–nominated author Diane Johnson (Le Divorce [1997], Le Marriage [2000], and L’Affaire [2004]) returns with a deceivingly lighthearted novel that explores her interest in the clash of cultures.

The Story: Lulu Sawyer, a 30-something Californian and relatively new CIA agent, enters North Africa’s realm of international espionage and terrorism when she is sent to Marrakech to learn how money moves from Morocco to Islamic terrorist organizations. Her cover for this low-level mission is a relationship with former fling Ian Drumm, a wealthy Englishman who introduces Lulu to a fascinating multicultural cast of characters: French and British expats, an American-educated Saudi woman, and a young French-Algerian medical student hiding from a brother who demands her execution for bringing shame on their family. Working undercover, Lulu seeks information from her elite perch at Ian’s villa while observing its domestic dramas. Then she is tasked with a far riskier mission—and finds herself in real danger.
Dutton. 307 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0525950370

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The novel’s portrait of contemporary Morocco’s political and social complexities is also spot-on. … Johnson’s novel is not only a gripping page-turner—I don’t know when I last enjoyed reading a novel as much as this one—but a serious examination of how a ‘good person’ can get involved in some very dark things." Martin Rubin

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"With a cast of characters like this—flirting, making love, talking to and constantly about each other—do you really need a fancy plot? Probably not, though Johnson dutifully supplies a thoroughly implausible drama about Lulu’s role in the abduction of a terrorist suspect. As a government spook, she’s a washout." Jennifer Reese

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Johnson’s chapter headings feature quotes from the Quran, CIA training manuals, political Web sites and spy novels. … The book works on all its levels, except perhaps for the romance involving Lulu, the Englishman and another woman." Mark Lindquist

Newsday 3 of 5 Stars
"The novel alludes to its violent climax, but nothing prepares the reader for Lulu’s grand assignment: an act too horrific, too unconscionable to forgive (or to reveal). This is surely Johnson’s bleakest novel in recent times." Rebecca Cooney

NY Times Book Review 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Plowing through Diane Johnson’s latest clash-of-cultures novel, the reader is forced to wonder whether Lulu, her heroine, is concealing her brilliance under a bushel. When will her cleverness, her real vim, be revealed? … The reader feels simply glum, locked in a windowless world of preconceptions never shattered and lessons never learned." Erica Wagner

New York Times 0.5 of 5 Stars
"That this unobservant, naïve and unresourceful ditz is supposed to be a covert C.I.A. operative, assigned to trace the flow of money from Islamic charities in Marrakech to terrorist groups, is patently absurd, as is the trajectory of the plot, which abruptly moves from the subjects of house parties and romantic triangles to those of rendition and torture. … [A] gauzy and disposable comedy of manners." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Though bearing the admirable fascination for culture clash that Johnson has made her signature over the years, Lulu in Marrakech is nonetheless problematic in its unbelievable protagonist, plot, and treatment of international issues. Lulu Googles refugee camps in the western Sahara and analyzes cocktail party gossip—her arsenal lacks fancy gadgets or files. The plots jumps implausibly from poolside flirtations to issues of kidnapping and torture, and Lulu’s narration contains insensitivities to cultural distinctions that are possibly meant to highlight cultural stereotypes of American and Muslim women but instead come off as cartoonish. Finally, most critics noted that the novel lacks direction: is it a parable of U.S. foreign policy or culture clash, a love story, a thriller, or a comedy of manners juxtaposed with the world of terrorism and torture? While it succeeds in some of these genres, it fails to achieve them all.

Also by the Author

Le Divorce (1997): Award Star National Book Award Finalist. Old World meets New World as California film-school dropout Isabel Walker heads to Paris to help her stepsister, whose husband has just left her.