I really enjoyed this bracingly original novel which follows widow Frances Price and her lunkish adult son Malcolm, who were once fabulously wealthy and are now-not. Fleeing economic ruin, they abandon the Upper East Side for Paris (accompanied by their cat, Small Frank, who-Frances believes-houses the spirit of her late husband), where they attract a disparate crew of hangers on. A satire of high-society manners in very amusing company....
What he aims for, and often achieves, is a kind of deadpan zaniness, pitched somewhere between Nathanael West, the cultish writer of surreal, Depression-era fables, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, the cultish writer of speech-heavy studies of dysfunctional families... Another problem is that deWitt doesn’t seem 100 per cent fluent in the wordy, old-fashioned style he sets out to parody
From its arch first line – “All good things must end” – it is sinuously enjoyable: DeWitt writes in a gorgeously relaxed, freeform style, dabbing a clause here, a phrase there. The book is studded with tiny pleasures... as well as dialogue to relish... DeWitt has found liberation within the conventions of genre - an overlooked space where he can keep on surprising the reader, triangulating wit, absurdism and existential angst. This book is billed as “a comedy/tragedy of manners”, and though many elements are taken from farce – a postcard mailed by accident, slaps and slapstick, indoor bicycling – sadness mists the pages and death is in the air along with the aroma of croissants... French Exit trades in surfaces rather than depths, but DeWitt’s particular comic genius is to evoke the darkness behind the dazzle. The novel is a brittle, unsettling delight: a fairground ride swooping above vertiginous drops, wringing out laughter and screams as it rattles towards its conclusion. Whichever style he adopts or genre he inhabits, DeWitt remains a true original.
French Exit is the sort of novel wherein the spirit of a dead husband possesses a live feline, people travel from New York to Paris by cruise ship even though it’s the 21st century, and characters are less than the sum of their affectations. The themes (inadequate parents, broken dreams) and mise-en-scène (fading grandeur) owe a lot to the American indie cinema of Wes Anderson — but for all its arch dialogue and kooky anachronisms the book never hits that vein of melancholy and pain. And after whetting the appetite for wit, deWitt merely serves a few half-baked hors-d’oeuvres. People say things like: ‘I don’t think that there’s anything so comforting as quite a lot of money, wouldn’t you agree?’ and ‘Everything I’ve ever lost in my life has always wound up being under the bed’, which sound like they may come from some kind of Noël Coward line generator... Worse, the characters are incessantly remarking on Frances’s wit.
This patchy ‘tragedy of manners’ is the fourth novel from Canada’s Patrick deWitt, best known for his Booker-shortlisted The Sisters Brothers. . . Quite what any of this adds up to is hard to say, but deWitt succeeds in mining genuine pathos from the plight of his oddball cast of characters, while his droll, deadpan delivery somehow gets under the skin.
The fastidiousness of deWitt's tone reflects the misplaced fastidiousness with which Frances and Malcolm lead their lives. Both communicate intense sadness. Good taste – buying the best wine and going to the best parties – is only a temporary distraction from their unrequited loves, not to mention their inevitable deaths; just as the presence of rough-sleeping immigrants in the park outside their Paris apartment reminds them that their wealth is only a distraction from the miseries of human existence writ large.
If anything, this poignancy is a little too telegraphed. However touching, there are proportionally too many pregnant images and stories about Frances's and Malcolm's lonely childhoods for a novel this short. Unlike a film, where the time constraints put individual scenes under greater pressure to convey thematic significance, fiction has the space to allow this to emerge incidentally. But it is no great criticism, perhaps, to say of a novel that you would happily have read more of it.
Patrick deWitt has talked of his fondness for giving well-established genres “a kick in the teeth”. Yet, while this applies to his Booker-shortlisted The Sisters Brothers . . . here he seems instead to be on an ill-advised mission to see how much strangeness we can take... He also appears to have fed his characters some kind of truth drug, so that they exchange devastating personal remarks with no thought as to what in a more realistic novel would be the consequences. Nonetheless, Frances and Malcolm make for a memorable double act, with Frances in particular zinging out waspish one-liners... Perhaps sensing that he’s in danger of losing the audience, deWitt closes the novel by exchanging whimsy for a sudden dollop of would-be tragedy — the trouble being that even in a book where the characters are largely motiveless, this cries out for an explanation we never receive... But what makes this even more of a shame is that the fun of the early sections never disappears completely. As a tantalising result, we keep getting glimpses (increasingly rare, admittedly) of how much better French Exit could have been if only deWitt had tried a bit less hard.
With French Exit (DeWitt)) has served up a wry, soufflé-light, European-style comedy about a wealthy, profligate Manhattan widow, Frances, and her desultory son, Malcolm, who, on hearing the money has finally run out, head to Paris to spend what little they have left. Frances is a professional eccentric, Malcolm seems to have no purpose in life whatsoever, but deWitt spins a diverting oddball tale that treads just the right line between bite and whimsy. Still, it feels as light as a flake of pastry.