Lulu in Marrakech

"I am determined not to let ideology, whether of love or patriotism, get the better of me again." So says the eponymous heroine of Lulu in Marrakech, the 15th novel from the prolific Diane Johnson. With novels such as Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L?Affaire, Johnson has long established a mastery of the comedy of manners, particularly as a consequence of culture clash among American expats, the French, and the English. In a move likely to take longtime readers off guard, Johnson has upped the ante in this book, exploring a fictional mileu -- a tale of espionage in the post-9/11 era. Her star: a not-very-savvy spy who struggles to resolve two missions, one on behalf of U.S. national security, the other, a matter of romantic insecurity.

Thirty-something California native Lulu Sawyer (not her "christened name"), neither especially world-traveled nor world-wise, signed on with the CIA as a "human intelligence-seeking" agent to feed her desire for adventure. Before coming to Marrakech, Lulu performed a mission in Kosovo, where she worked, both overtly and covertly, with an international rescue organization, but it seemed the only adventure she found was an affair with a rich Englishman humanitarian, Ian Drumm -- the Mr. Darcy to her Elizabeth -- who knows nothing of her association with the Agency. Ian has recently relocated to an estate in Marrakech, where he frequently entertains English and French houseguests, as well as his next-door neighbors, a wealthy Saudi couple, the Al-Sayads -- the exquisite Gazi and her controlling husband, Khaled -- and their French-Algerian secretary, Suma Bourad. Suma, it turns out, is on the run from her brother Amid, who questions her virtue and is allegedly determined to exact an honor killing.

To the mind of Lulu?s handling officer, Sefton Taft -- an elusive and cryptic Charlie Townsend–like figure who hopes his angel will demonstrate some moxie -- these insular environs, with their nonstop poolside tea and cocktail parties, are ripe for information gathering on the money trail between Europeans and fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. Taft dispatches his lovelorn charge, who is admittedly "a little frightened of Islam," with a mandate to reignite the romance with Ian and trace the sources.

The fact that the imperceptive Lulu has any modicum of success is a miracle, so focused is she on her love for Ian; even the mystery of his growing inaccessibility to her only becomes apparent when she happens upon the sight of him consoling Gazi, with whom it turns out he?s been involved for years. If not for the guidance of her point person, Colonel Barka, and her boss, Taft, she might have forgotten that her romance is a cover for her mission, not the other way around. But, on the credit side, Taft withholds a considerable amount of direction and information because he believes "real ignorance makes you less vulnerable in interrogation" -- and Lulu cannot pull off a poker face.

So what does Lulu do all day, then? Throughout much of this page-turning but ultimately disappointing novel, she spends her time with fellow house guest Posy Crumley, the pregnant young wife of an English poet, who is ambivalent about her impending motherhood and frustrated by her seemingly interminable stay in Morocco. The author bequeaths Posy an acid tongue, lending voice to the racism and deepening cultural resentments between the Christian expatriates and the Muslims, as when she says things like: "Islamic men should just be nuked, or put on a desert island, and all the children raised by English nannies with sensible views, to start them out on a better footing."

If not for Lulu?s intensifying entanglements in the dramas of Gazi and Suma, both fleeing men convinced of their possible, punishable indiscretions -- in Taft's terms, the "embattled bastion of beleaguered Muslim females" -- she may never have questioned the true identities of nearly everyone she?s encountered, or led the Agency to the people they were pursuing. On the first occasion that Lulu is called to spy action, it?s as a friend -- Gazi begs her to get the key to her husband?s safe to retrieve her passport -- and she panics and botches the mission, earning her Khaled's ire. But it?s her official business that tragically and inadvertently leaves her with blood on her hands -- as an accomplice to two violently ham-fisted American agents -- and threatens her with criminal charges.

We never really understand how the clueless and aptly named Lulu has come to be retained by the CIA, and that?s Johnson?s central misstep. It?s not so much a sloppy tale of espionage that does in Lulu in Marrakech; it?s the more surprising fact that Lulu herself is the least realized character in the book. Perhaps that was Johnson?s intent -- for Lulu to remain a stranger to us just as she remains a stranger to herself, which, I suspect, is why she was drawn to the Agency life, to forget her personal history and forge a new identity. How else to explain that we never learn Lulu Sawyer?s real name? Is Lulu so deeply entrenched that she can?t even confide to the reader? Lulu says early on in the novel, "I didn?t know what saw in me, yet I was prepared to defer to them; I expected to discover, eventually, some property in myself that I would recognize as validating their view." If only we could see Lulu make some kind of genuine self-discovery -- then we?d have access to the vital human intelligence Johnson so often delivers.

April 15: "A page...will begin with some principles of astronomy, or the motion of the earth; then come the laws of sound..."

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