French Exit by Patrick deWitt - book review

French Exit by Patrick deWitt
French Exit by Patrick deWitt

Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author Patrick deWitt drolly details the adventures of an acerbic, moneyed 60-something New York socialite and her morose, loafer son as they flee to Paris to escape the humiliation of financial ruin.

The poignant, darkly comic French Exit is the keenly anticipated fourth novel by the acclaimed Canadian writer whose internationally bestselling western The Sisters Brothers was recently made into a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly.

Beginning with Ablutions in 2009, which was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice book, deWitt has earned strong critical acclaim for his eloquent prose, quirky characters, and his ability to write dialogue that has a degree of lightness and humour. His latest book is no exception.

It begins at a party on the Upper East Side with the strikingly attractive, revered, upper-cruster Frances Price indulging in ‘a night of implied insults and needling insinuations.’ Cold, snobbish and mean-spirited toward the host, a woman of high social standing, Frances leaves the party, gives a passing beggar twenty dollars, rebukes a policeman, and commends her socially awkward adult son, Malcolm, on having stolen a jade-framed photograph from the host’s bedroom.

The abnormal mother and son relationship is at the core of the novel, with both dysfunctional characters distracted by ‘personal unhappiness.’ Frances, despite her popularity, is largely friendless and was neglected as a child by her unaffectionate ‘demon’ mother. Similarly, Malcolm’s insensitive father, a famous litigator whose death is clouded by controversy, snubbed his son.

Now 32, Malcolm still lives with his mother and is unwilling to cut the apron strings and move out of their grand, multi-level apartment which resembles a museum. He strives to learn more about his parents and their rocky relationship and recently he is in a particularly melancholic mood following the recent breakdown of his engagement to Susan.

Frances, ‘meddlesome’ and ‘difficult,’ has always disapproved of Malcolm’s choice of fiancée and has been antagonistic toward the girl, ‘actively trying to dismantle their relationship.’ It’s Malcolm’s unhealthily close relationship with his mother that has caused the rift between them.

But revelations of Frances’ dire financial situation force a necessary change to their living situation. Frances has spent her life running from one ‘brightly burning disaster to the next’ and now, having squandered her inheritance and with liquidation underway, she decides to skip out on her debts and live out her remaining days in France.

Accompanied by Malcolm and their cat, an ‘antique oddity’ named Small Frank whom Frances is convinced houses the spirit of her late husband, they board a passenger ship for Paris.

On the way, Frances has an underwhelming romance with the ship’s captain, and Malcolm has a dalliance with a medium employed as an onboard entertainer. He later discovers she has been thrown in the brig for telling an elderly passenger they are dying, only for the passenger to go into cardiac arrest and expire.

Their arrival in Paris is equally eventful, with mother and son moving into the apartment of an American expat, Frances scheming to spend all of her inheritance as quickly as possible, and a troupe of eccentric characters invading their lives, including Susan and her naive new boyfriend.

On top of all this, Small Frank has gone missing, aimlessly roving the city and experiencing ‘placelessness’ and cruel and unpleasant experiences with strangers. Keen to locate him, Frances calls on a psychic and a bashful private investigator for help.

Meanwhile, Small Frank, undeterred by his strong survival instincts, decides to ‘set out to achieve his exit’ from life, unaware that those closest to him are harbouring similar morbid thoughts.

Gentler and more tender than a Patrick deWitt reader might anticipate, French Exit is a skilfully told tale that is brimming with humour and pathos, insightful conversations, and featuring eccentric people that intrigue and entertain.

(Bloomsbury Publishing, hardback, £16.99)