Tuesday, September 25, 2018

French Exit

By Patrick deWitt

Ecco     2018
256 pages     Literary

Frances Price is a New York socialite with a adult son, Malcolm, who lives with her, and a family cat, Small Frank, who apparently is the spirit of Frances’ dead husband, Franklin. Frances is everything you could imagine a 65-year-old socialite to be: sharp-tongued, full of preconceptions, and mannerisms. She delights in “implied insults and needling insinuations.” As an example, Frances doesn’t like Malcolm’s fiancé because she once ordered gazpacho out of season.

A scandal has defined Frances through the years in New York society. She had returned home and found her husband Frank dead in bed. Instead of calling the police, Frances went skiing for the weekend—because there wasn’t anything to be done about it. Now, Frances has no one but her son and one friend, Joan. She also has just a limited amount of money and decides to sell her apartment and move to France to live in Joan’s Paris apartment.

A French exit, by the way, means to leave a social gathering without saying your farewells. And in the first, really funny scene, she does exactly that. However, for Frances, the meaning of French exit has a slightly sinister tone to it. She actually plans to exit herself once she gets to Paris. “Sometimes the world corrected itself, she knew this, for it had so many times in her past. She understood intuitively that it would not correct itself now, though.” In other words, Frances is bored with life and wants to make her own “French exit.”

Why Malcolm joins her in Paris is one of the unanswered questions in the book. Is he so spineless that he has to follow his mother around endlessly? And indeed he does, leaving behind a fiancée who is not sure why she loves him. Susan, Malcolm’s fiancée, wonders why she had “come to care for this lugubrious toddler of a man.”

Well, once they get to Paris, they collect a cadre of crazy people, including a psychic, who calls the presence of Frances’ husband from the cat, a private investigator, a doctor named Touche, and a great cook who feeds them souffles and cocktails. Friend Joan arrives at her apartment, and she is soon followed by Malcolm’s fiancée Susan and her new boyfriend. Chaos ensues. These scenes have been compared to a Noel Coward comedy of manners. French Exit may best be called a tragic comedy, because although there is always a comic turn to everything, we know from the very beginning tragedy is just around the corner. The NPR reviewer suggests that you can’t take anything too seriously, because if you do, the entire novel falls apart.

Frankly, once I got into the premise of French Exit, I enjoyed all of it. The New Yorker calls the novel “stealth absurdism.” It took me a bit to realize that was what I was reading, but when I figured it out, I settled in and just went along for the ride. Patrick deWitt has written books in several genres, but this is his first comedy of manners. Out now,  movie The Sisters Brothers is a slapstick Western starring inept outlaws. The movie is based on another of deWitt's novels. I really wanted to see the movie before I wrote the review of French Exit, but the movie hasn’t come to Kalamazoo yet.

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