Review: French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

FFrench Exit Book Coverrench Exit [2018] – ★★★

This tragicomedy of manners comes from the author of a Man Booker Prize nominee The Sisters Brothers [2011]. In French Exit, Patrick DeWitt centres on a mother, Frances, a fussy and bossy woman of sixty-five, and her good-for-nothing thirty-two year-old son, Malcolm, who see their fortune fade away after an ill-publicised death of the family provider Franklin Price, once an eminent lawyer in New York City. Once rich and admired, the family of two now face financial ruin and decide to go to Paris, perhaps, for a change of scenery. Frances’s only friend Joan provides an apartment to rent in Paris for them, and the duo of unlikely central characters embark on their French exploit enthusiastically, meeting eccentric characters along the way. This slightly surreal tragicomedy is an amusing enough read, but it is also often somewhat dull, with emotional punch coming too late in this curious book. 

The book starts interestingly enough with eccentric Frances and her almost submissive son leaving one party early and finding a local tramp to have a long conversation with. Frances is an interesting character because she displays some contradictory qualities, for example, she loves shopping, but also feels somehow “burdened” by the money that she has: “She was a moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brown-stone in New York City’s Upper East Side. Her son, Malcolm, thirty-two, stood nearby looking his usual broody and unkempt self” [Patrick DeWitt, 2018: 3]. Frances’s relationship with her adult son is also curious since it transpires that Malcolm’s childhood was not exactly that warm or affectionate regarding his parents’ attitude to him. When the pair lands in Paris, the City of Lights and, perhaps, hope for them, they start to observe life outside their window and pass the time as though few things have changed in their life (and they are still wealthy). Bizarre situations start to occur when a medium Madeleine, a woman Malcolm met on their ship to Europe, re-emerges in Paris, and both a overly-friendly private detective and Mrs Reynard, a nosy and lonely expat living in Paris, make their acquaintance with the Price family.

One of the problems with the book is simply that it gets dull quite frequently. French Exit has also been hailed as “original”, but the situation of Frances and Malcolm in the plot is almost banal fiction-wise – let’s recall F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned [1922] or the film Blue Jasmine [2013], where the authors/directors already depleted every possible sorrow and comedy that can come from a situation involving once rich people, but now fallen on hard times. Patrick DeWitt’s dialogues are enjoyable to read, but some “funny” lines do not seem altogether fresh: “Susan stretched her arms [saying] “- You’re not planning on killing me, I hope” – “No”, said Frances. “Oh, that’s good[replied Susan] [Patrick DeWitt, 2018: 184]. It is true that these lines may be witty and darkly amusing, but they are not really something for us to be in awe of in terms of wit and originality. Another problem is that there is no connecting thread running through the novel (maybe, apart from Malcolm’s sporadic memories), and when the author found that thread by the end and tried to present the picture in an emotional, almost poignant way, he also misfired not least because he wrapped up the story too hastily. In the second half of the book, some bizarre supernatural elements also emerge which are as random as one would imagine them to be in a book like this.

I do not have a problem with unlikeable, exaggerated characters in books, and liked following both Frances and Malcolm, as well as their cat named Little Frank, who is probably the most sympathetic character. However, secondary characters in French Exit were presented in such a way as to be unconvincing and seem to exist merely to shed light on the personalities of Frances and Malcolm. These includes a psychic Madeleine, Frances’s friend Joan and even Malcolm’s girlfriend Susan. Also surprisingly, Patrick DeWitt decided to introduce some emotional elements in the last pages of the novel, and that includes an emphasis on the emotional connection between the mother and the son. This is surprising because the rest of the book has been delivered in an almost distant and unemotional manner.

My expectation was that French Exit would be a light read full of sarcastic humour and absurd situations involving upper class people who find themselves fallen on hard times and having now to deal with the “real” world. The book is only half-baked in that respect. French Exit may be light and pleasant enough to read with some interesting characters, but it is also often a dull read which startles with its surreal and macabre elements emerging from nowhere. The verdict is that French Exit is an odd book whose plot simply fell flat.

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