French Exit by Patrick deWitt
A French exit means leaving without saying goodbye, disappearing suddenly; we might call it ghosting. Have you ever done it? Shame on you if you have, but we all probably have at least been tempted. Patrick deWitt, known for his pointed satire of human foibles as the author of The Sisters Brothers and The Undermajordomo Minor, creates another off-beat examination of our modern life and times in his novel, French Exit. With a combination of Oscar Wilde irony, Noel Coward wit, and Wes Anderson macabre, French Exit is both funny and morbid.
Frances Price gained her reputation when she finds her wealthy philandering husband’s dead body, leaves him in bed telling noone, and goes off for a weekend ski vacation. It’s twenty years later and sixty-five year old Frances has shopped her way through all the money. Forced to leave her posh New York City surroundings and sell all her possessions, she cruises off to Paris with her son Malcolm and her cat, Small Frank, who seems to be the reincarnation of her dead husband, to live in her friend’s small vacant apartment, while she decides how to deal with her penniless situation.
Frances’s 32-year-old son Malcolm’s long-suffering fiancée, Susan, affectionately describes him as a “lugubrious toddler of a man” and a “pile of American garbage” when he breaks off their long-standing engagement before sailing away. Malcolm drinks, steals trinkets from his hosts at parties, and generally enjoys the rich boy’s life of doing nothing. The news that he and Frances are not only broke but moving to Paris doesn’t seem to change his attitude.
The novel continues its second half in Paris, adding more absurd characters. The characters are terrible people and the situation they find themselves in is indefensible. But the dialogue in this comedy of manners lifts the tale with its wit, as it skewers the worst of high society – especially the prevalence of appearance over substance – a timely observation for today’s society.
Not much happens as a plot in the story, but the characters and deWitt’s sharp dialogue and wordplay will compel you to keep reading to find out how they will manage in the end. What will become of Frances and Malcolm? Will Frank finally get what he deserves? The ending is pretty depressing as DeWitt subliminally delivers a social commentary on finding, or losing, one’s purpose in life.
If you enjoyed deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, you will be satisfied with the absurdity and distraction of French Exit, and perhaps gasp as you laugh.
Related Review: The Undermajordomo Minor