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Originally published Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Lulu in Marrakech": a spy tale tossed with romance

Diane Johnson's novel "Lulu in Marrakech" returns to the terrain of expatriate life and culture clash she explored in "Le Divorce," but with a darker theme — this time Johnson's heroine is a CIA spy.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Lulu in Marrakech"

by Diane Johnson

Penguin, 336 pp., $25.95

Diane Johnson, who divides her time between San Francisco and Paris, is known for her tales of expatriate life and culture clash, most notably, "Le Divorce," which was set in France and made into a frothy movie starring Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson.

"Lulu in Marrakech" is heavier than "Le Divorce," delving as it does into the dark heart of Islam. Our narrator, Lulu Sawyer, a CIA spy, explains, "I was a little frightened of Islam; after all that's happened, who isn't? Maybe Muslims themselves are afraid of it, disconcerted to find themselves prisoners of a situation where even families and people they know might turn on them and blow them up."

Lulu, working undercover, is tasked with tracing money that's flowing to radical Islamic groups. Subplots include the tribulations of a young Muslim girl who is seeking refuge from her brother who wants to kill her for losing her virginity, the sabotage of an Englishman's factory and Lulu's romance with that Englishman.

Johnson's chapter headings feature quotes from the Quran, CIA training manuals, political Web sites and spy novels. A two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Johnson has done her homework, and the authentic details add color and texture.

Troubled by "Islam's lack of humanity and respect for women," Lulu is continually ill at ease in a modern Marrakech that has grown menacing, especially compared to the sunny, mythic city portrayed in the eponymous Crosby, Stills & Nash song.

There is humor, but much of it has an edge. "Have you ever noticed, in the Koran, if you substitute 'cow' for the word 'woman' it still makes perfect sense? 'Beat them, and if they mind you, leave them alone,' things like that."

Carefully crafted, the book works on all its levels, except perhaps for the romance involving Lulu, the Englishman and another woman. I was put in mind of a quote from "Casablanca": "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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