While browsing in an antique shop in Seattle, Amy Hawkins, an attractive, charming, former dot-com executive from Palo Alto with a small fortune, overhears the owner complain that the dot-commers prefer their antiques shiny and overvarnished. "No one has taught them anything. If it weren't for Martha Stewart the whole culture would be down the drain. It's amazing what they don't know." Recognizing herself in this criticism, Amy vows to gain a knowledge of the world: of poetry, languages, the white-wine glass and the red. In her quest for self-improvement, she travels to Hotel Croix St. Bernard in the French Alps, where she plans to learn to cook and ski before embarking on a more rigorous cultural education in Paris.
In L'Affaire, Johnson returns to her theme of the naïve American abroad, previously explored in her best-selling novels Le Divorce (1997) and Le Mariage (2000). Very quickly, Amy discovers that it isn't easy being an unattached, very rich American girl [End Page 210] in Europe. While out skiing, she just barely avoids an avalanche that leaves Adrian Venn, a seventyish British publisher, and his new young American wife, Kerry, in comatose states in a hospital with modest, outdated facilities. Out of national loyalty, Amy befriends Kip, Kerry's younger brother, who is left to care for the Venns' toddler, Harry. The take-charge sensibility that has made Amy so successful in the corporate world is unwelcome to Venn's older children, Vee, Posy and Rupert. Her single act of generosity—getting Adrian to a better hospital in England—puts her at odds with them, since due to conflicting inheritance laws, their part of his fortune will be larger if he dies in France. Amy's staunchest critic is Vee's husband, Emile Abboud, a sexy French-Tunisian seducer who dislikes all Americans, particularly the earnest, do-gooder Amy.
The young American also finds herself the object of suspicious affections: Is it her or her money they are after? She quickly learns that wealth hasn't changed her, but it has changed the way others act toward her.
Johnson's Americans in Europe, faced with a cultural chasm, draw casual comparisons to Henry James's characters. Yet, where James's power dynamics are sublimated and unspoken, Johnson's are overt and at times playful. Her characters speak their minds and act on their passions. L'Affaire is full of cross-cultural bedroom farce that at times lapses into a mess of lawsuits and shifting alliances. Johnson overcomes this shortcoming with her wisdom regarding human failings. Love relationships change on a dime, and human folly reigns supreme. Johnson seems to want to remind us "what fools these mortals be" when it comes to love and money.