Lulu in Marrakech
By Diane Johnson
Dutton, October 2008
If you’re looking for the exoticism of North Africa and the intrigue of working as a field operative for the CIA, Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakech is the wrong book to read. This fluffy novel will leave readers scratching their heads wondering how a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize could create such flimsy characters and a pointless plot.
Lulu Sawyer is a field operative sent to Marrakech to investigate the flow of money from wealthy donors to extremist Islamic groups. As her cover, she is to create a literacy program for girls and women and to rekindle a romance with British expat, Ian Drumm. As she installs herself in Drumm’s enclave, Lulu meets a number of expatriates including British poet Robin Crumley and his pregnant young wife Posy, Saudi couple Gazi and Khaled bin Sultan Al-Sayad, Lord and Lady Cotter, and an American gay couple who run a tea shop, as well as an assorted group of servants, namely Suma, a young Muslim woman, hiding from her brother intent on an honor killing and who works as an au pair for the Cotters.
The stories of Suma and the beautiful and stupid Gazi–who has left her husband and is also vying for Ian’s love-serves a clumsy subplot of cultural repression of Islamic women, but Johnson doesn’t even scratch the surface. Both women, whose individual plights would have made for a deeper story, evoke little sympathy or interest.
Much can’t be said for the other characters, which come across as flat like cut-out paper dolls, including California-raised Lulu who is neither an alluring or mysterious Mata Hari nor the sensual and dangerous Lulu in Pandora’s Box. For the most part, Lulu is preoccupied with her waning love affair with Ian and not an observant or particularly intelligent spy.
The thin plot appears to thicken when Suma’s brother Amid arrives in Marrakech searching for his sister. In a ridiculous twist, Lulu’s superiors also arrive in Marrakech to observe Amid who is suspected by the Americans to be part of a terrorist cell with French and North African ties. Later, Lulu is involved in a kidnapping that goes terribly wrong and endangers her cover.
Take out the mediocre political intrigue and perhaps Lulu in Marrakech could be an amusing comedy of errors about the cultural gaffes of a bubble-headed bleached blonde who stumbles her way through Marrakech, but even under that premise Johnson’s portrayal of European, American expatriates, and Moroccans is simply not convincing.