French Exit by Patrick deWitt
One thing’s clear: Canadian author deWitt is incapable of writing the same thing twice. Each of his four novels is unique – from the bartender making notes about his customers for a novel in his debut Ablutions (see here) to the The Blues Brothers meets Deadwood of the fabulous The Sisters Brothers (see here, one of my favourite ever novels), via the Ruritanian satire of Undermajordomo Minor (the one I’ve yet to read). French Exit, his latest, is equally different in scope. However, all his books share a wicked, slightly twisted sense of humour, present and correct in good measure in his new novel, so in this he is consistent!
Meet Frances and Malcolm Price:
“All good things must come to an end,” said Frances Price.
She was a moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone in New York City’s Upper East Side. Her son, Malcolm, thirty-two, stood nearby looking his usual broody and unkempt self. It was late autumn, dusk; the windows of the brownstone were lit, a piano sounded on the air – a tasteful party was occurring. Frances was explaining her early departure to a similarly wealthy though less lovely individual, this the hostess. Her name doesn’t matter. She was aggrieved.
Frances is the kind of woman who will not be told what to do. However, she give a lie as an excuse – the vet had called – her cat was on its last legs. Small Frank, as her cat is known, is, of course, fine, and Frances believes that the spirit of her late husband, Franklin, lives on in the cat. Back home, there is a message from her lawyer, Mr Baker, who still needs to see Frances urgently – she’s been putting him off for ages. Baker had followed Frank’s career as one of the city’s top barristers assiduously:
Price personified all that Mr. Baker held to be of any importance. Certainly he looked the part: he was a dashing man, poised, stylishly attired; but this was offset by the needed amount of menace, a tactile pulse of psychic violence. It was difficult to speak with Price because if you bored him, he told you you did; and if you bothered him, there was in his carriage and language a hostility that one could not help but equate with actual bloodshed. Price was never recognized for physical mayhem, but his dismissals were just the same as a wallop in the face.
When Frances came home to find him dead from a heart attack, she just left the body and went on her planned ski weekend to Vail. So the tabloids said – they had a field day. Now, Baker has to tell her that the money is effectively gone, she should cash up what she can quickly and move before the house is repossessed. Frances decides to decamp to Paris, borrowing her best friend Joan’s apartment, and with €185000 in cash and Small Frank hidden in her bag, she and Malcolm board a cruise-liner to travel off to France in style, where they both have dalliances – Malcolm with a medium called Madeleine, and Frances with the Captain!
Safely in Paris, Frances decides to divest herself of all her money and sets about spending it and giving it to strangers. However, Small Frank is not so settled and runs away, and as he roams the streets of the city, we do indeed begin to believe he is Franklin. Meanwhile, Frances and Malcolm are acquiring a flat full of hangers on – a friendly widow, a private detective who tracks down Madeleine so she can find Small Frank, and ultimately Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend and her new partner. Poor Malcolm, his only function has been to keep his mother company, having been totally ignored as a child, and tied to his mother’s apron-strings now, he needs to cut them and grow up finally.
To tell you how it pans out would spoil the fun, but all the hangers-on liven up proceedings immensely – they tell each other stories, and we hear about a pivotal episode when Malcolm was younger, which gives us some sympathy for this man-boy. As for his mother, on the outside, Frances is waspish, selfish, with a barbed wit that makes you think of Dorothy Parker, but underneath a real person lurks which begins to come out as she spends her money. On that front, I couldn’t help but recall the film Brewster’s Millions in which Richard Pryor has to spend $30M in thirty days in order to inherit $300M – but Frances has nothing to inherit – what are her motives for spending? And where is Small Frank?
French Exit as a social satire of high society is brimming with wit, but prepared as we are at the start to dislike Frances, by the end of the novel due to deWitt’s injection of pathos, we pierce her shell. At just under 250 pages, with a good amount of white space around the text, it’s a quick and mostly frothy read which is all the better for that brevity. I’d rank it third out of the three novels by deWitt that I’ve read, but still worth 8/10.
See also: Susan’s review at A Life in Books here.
Source: Own copy.
Patrick deWitt, French Exit (Bloomsbury, Sept 2018) hardback, 256 pages.
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