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Vail book review: Character’s dual mission stirs mixed emotions

Anuschka Bales
Special to the Vail Daily

It is a refreshing feeling to encounter a novel completely populated with characters that you can quite equally love and hate. Diane Johnson’s “Lulu in Marrakech” is just such a novel.

The precarious coexistence of two very different cultures and the inevitable sexual tension that transpires are deftly handled by Johnson. This modern novel in such an exotic atmosphere and with such a timely subject is not only totally plausible, but you expect your plane ticket to arrive in the mail any day.

Lulu, our intrepid American abroad, half tip-toes, half stumbles through the souks and society of Morocco in a way that evokes the scents of incense and saffron with every page. She has two not-so-distinct missions. First, rekindle her romance with the wealthy, debonair Englishman she met in Europe. Second, spy on the wealthy Europeans, such as her lover, whom her employer, the CIA, believes are funding extremists.



As Lulu contemplates her surroundings poolside, the precarious balance of life between her European hosts and the native Muslims is starting to fray. The eclectic community streams in and out of her lover’s villa in a never-ending stream of eccentric, late-night dinner parties and dramatic social developments.

Lulu frets over her feelings for her dashing Englishman and the possibility that he may represent exactly what she has been sent by her employers to stop. The more Lulu immerses in her new surroundings, the deeper the dilemmas and the greater the danger.



She is swept up in the problems of her new neighbors and friends. A young Muslim girl, Suma, is hiding from a brother who is intent on an honor killing. A beautiful Saudi Arabian neighbor leaves her husband in a desperate bid to escape her repressive society and may have romantic designs on Lulu’s lover. Each woman’s fears are inserted so subtly into an otherwise easy going plot line that you will find yourself contemplating the issues that their repressive social conventions have thrust upon them well past the final turn of the page.

Johnson has created a perfect snapshot of the ex-pat community anywhere in the world, populated with European eccentrics who couldn’t find their niche at home. Yet, despite the hypocrisy and frivolity of their existence, the glamour and appeal of such an enchanting setting makes you envy their every moment and wish to be a member of the misfit community they create.

Every woman will feel both a connection with and repulsion to Lulu, and this depth of character masterfully humanizes her. You will imagine what you would do or feel if you were in Lulu’s place. In this way, Johnson has expressed so much more than a conventional story. She has evoked some of the most powerful emotions we feel – love, hate, fear, and joy – and embodied them in a character we can all identify with in some way.



Anuschka works at the Bookworm of Edwards. E-mail comments about this book review to cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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