Diane Johnson's Lulu in Marrakech tells the story of a low-level undercover CIA agent who travels to Morocco as much to continue her Kosovo-begun romance with an Englishman as to help trace the network of money finding its way into the hands of suicide bombers and other radical Middle Eastern organizations while ostensibly working to improve female literacy in the country. Primarily a vehicle for bringing a multicultural group together in an exotic land and allowing everyone to play off one another, the book will disappoint anyone expecting/requiring high drama or an actual romance. The further I got in the book the more Lulu (an alias, of course) reminded me of the unnamed narrator in all of Julie Hecht's stories and novel; Lulu isn't neurotic like the Hecht character, but her voice, her behavior, was just judged off enough by the others to make me think I might like to start a reread of Hecht. And read more Johnson--many of the Amazon reviewers make clear this is not the best Johnson by a long shot.
A few readerish excerpts:
Sometimes, fed up with company, I'd go to my room after dinner, leaving Ian to his guests. I would write my e-mails to "Sheila," and I'd read. To tell the truth, I'd never been much of a reader. One reason I never liked to read is that I early discovered that in stories, the female character you were supposed to love and admire was expected to make choices of the heart instead of rational choices. She was supposed to be buffeted by her emotions, and that was what made her lovable and womanly. True, in Little Women you liked Jo, the most intelligent one, though my secret was that I didn't like the little women at all; Jo was only the best among them, but even she, swayed by her emotions, sold out for the ugly, bearded, older professor, a repellent choice for lots of reasons.
"Oh, literacy," said Marina Cotter. "What good does reading do them? I think our project is much more useful. We teach them not to kill their donkeys. They beat them so, they starve them, and then when the creatures die, they bewail their misfortune. They have no conception of humane treatment or that it's in their own best interests to treat their beasts with kindness, for all that the Koran says you ought to treat animals kindly." She and a team of Arabic and Berber speakers travel in the guise of veterinarians, offering to treat sick donkeys, which they do, then they slip in their lessons: "If he is in good health, Mohammed, he will serve you a much longer time."
It was hard to imagine a life without being able to read--the situation for three quarters of women and girls in the rural areas of Morocco. If you couldn't read, you'd have to wait for people to tell you things--how unreliable that would be! The little girls I'd already seen in the city school I'd visited (most aged about ten, wearing head scarves) seemed to be following a more or less modern curriculum. Thinking of the people who disapprove of female reading, I also though of Posy, with her Oxbridge degree and views about water imagery and scansion and the rest, lumbering around, pregnant, waiting, and fretful, and I could imagine what the naysayers might say, that reading was wasted on Posy too, on all women, they should just get on with their baby-having.