Review: French Exit by Patrick deWitt
Frances Price — tart widow, possessive mother, and Upper East Side force of nature — is in dire straits, beset by scandal and impending bankruptcy. Her adult son Malcolm is no help, mired in a permanent state of arrested development. And then there’s the Price’s aging cat, Small Frank, who Frances believes houses the spirit of her late husband, an infamously immoral litigator and world-class cad whose gruesome tabloid death rendered Frances and Malcolm social outcasts.
Putting penury and pariahdom behind them, the family decides to cut their losses and head for the exit. One ocean voyage later, the curious trio land in their beloved Paris, the City of Light serving as a backdrop not for love or romance, but self-destruction and economic ruin — to riotous effect. A number of singular characters serve to round out the cast: a bashful private investigator, an aimless psychic proposing a seance, a doctor who makes house calls with his wine merchant in tow, and the inimitable Mme. Reynard, aggressive houseguest and dementedly friendly American expat.
Brimming with pathos and wit, French Exit is a one-of-a-kind ‘tragedy of manners,’ a riotous send-up of high society, as well as a moving mother/son caper which only Patrick deWitt could conceive and execute.
Already a bestselling and award-winning Canadian author, with such acclaimed novels as The Sisters Brother, Ablutions, Undermajordomo Minor to his name, Patrick deWitt’s latest, French Exit, has also received accolades, including being chosen as a Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalist. An author whose work has not yet been explored by yours truly, my interest in this title was immediately piqued as soon as I read the book’s enticing description.
Sometimes the world corrected itself, she knew this, for it had so many times in her past. She understood intuitively that it would not correct itself now, though.
Facing down inevitable bankruptcy and the liquidation of their estate in New York, widow Frances Price (with her grown son Malcolm in tow) decides to take her friend Joan’s offer of moving to her Paris apartment. For Frances, who has lived and experienced most of her life as someone feared, someone greatly admired for their intense beauty and their wealth, the pall left by her late husband’s death (and how Frances behaved after her truly reprehensible litigator husband was found deceased…) continues to pervade everything. Including Frances’s increasingly decided thoughts about her own mortality. Not heeding warnings from her financial advisor for years and never having tamed her billed-as-“pathological” spending, Frances, it would appear, still seems to have a vendetta: “that ruin was the object of the game…not linked to morality, but something smaller, something more personal, and bitterer”.
When Malcolm and Frances make their move to Joan’s apartment in Paris, they assemble a mixed troupe of individuals- accessories, if you will- to bear witness to Frances’ time and deeds in Paris. One deed includes the tracking down of a medium name Madeleine- who had a one night tryst with Malcolm and becomes tasked with finding Frances’ cat Small Frank, lost somewhere in Paris. Small Frank, it should be noted, is believed to house the spirit of the deceased and enraged Franklin Price. It should also be noted that Small Frank indeed appears to. In the midst of madcap moments of togetherness and revealing conversations with her new gang of admirers, surprising and outright sincere revelations about Franklin, Malcolm’s childhood, and Frances’ upbringing are brought to light. All the while, in the midst of commotion and tight quarters filled with their new troupe, one of Frances’ major goals in coming to Paris – offhandedly referred to throughout the novel, and still unfathomed by Malcolm- still simmers and simmers until reaching its vertex.
Malcolm was becoming frightened of Frances. There was a furtive look about her that he couldn’t name but that struck him as a manner of warning. Malcolm didn’t want to be warned, he only wished to look away.
So utterly sharp and tartly written, so uncanny, French Exit makes for standout contemporary lit. I have been guilty of faulting books with “unlikable” characters as a reason that I couldn’t invest myself or my attention in a story; deWitt has proven that it is the strength of the writing that matters, not the perception of likability. Frances and Malcolm are mostly, if not always, terrifically unpleasant people, but I was captured by the story and their plight from beginning to end. I’ve read reviews describing French Exit as absurdist and satirical, which is truly on point (just imagine a novel by Maria Semple but with much less forgiveness). If you’re looking for those features in a novel, as well as baffling characters, ridiculously perfect dialogue, and outlandish turns that are somehow totally reasonable, then French Exit might just be the pick for you.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of House of Anansi Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.