Do not be fooled by how disarmingly funny Patrick deWitt’s latest novel is. Though you will likely find yourself laughing out loud on numerous occasions while reading French Exit (assuming you enjoyed the author’s previous work or have a decent sense of humour), the book is a bleak, heartbreaking tragedy of the first order. The main characters are terrible people, the situation they find themselves in is untenable, and the ending is about as depressing as it gets. On the bright side, when the only animal in the book gets what’s coming to him, he fully deserves it, so there shouldn’t be any irate animal lovers hounding deWitt this time (as was the case with horse aficionados who took umbrage with the treatment of the animals in The Sisters Brothers).
Billed as a “tragedy of manners,” French Exit is deWitt’s take on a form of theatre popularized over the centuries (but dating back to the ancient Greeks) by such luminaries as Molière, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, and Noël Coward – with deWitt’s snappy yet droll version most closely resembling the latter two. A traditional comedy of manners employs an abundance of wit and insouciance to skewer the more deplorable aspects of high society – and the prevalence of appearance over substance in particular. DeWitt’s absolute mastery over this approach is a thing of beauty: every nuance, scene, character, and snippet of dialogue is pitch perfect.
DeWitt introduces readers to Frances Price, a 65-year-old grande dame of New York society who has elicited fear and respect from her peers for decades, though her handling of her husband Frank’s death years before has marred her reputation somewhat. Born into money, then married into more, Frances has never had to worry about how to pay for her multiple homes or flights of fancy – until now. Having blown through all the money Frank left her, Frances is facing insolvency. Her financial adviser tells her to sell whatever she can (for cash) before the bank and her creditors take it all, which she does. Homeless and basically penniless, she sails to France to live in the vacant Paris apartment of her only true friend, Joan, while she devises a plan to deal with her situation.
Along for the ride is Malcolm, 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.” After spending his first 12 years ensconced in a hellish boarding school, Malcolm has been his mother’s constant companion since Frank’s death. He has no vocation or even interests, it seems, other than fretting over his relationship with Susan and the fact that Frances doesn’t approve of her. He drinks to excess, steals trinkets from his hosts at parties, and generally loafs through life. The news that he and Frances are not only broke but moving to Paris doesn’t seem to change his state of being very much, though he wonders about the logistics of maintaining a long-distance relationship with Susan.
Once in Paris, mother and son accumulate a cadre of associates who enliven the story and move the action along, often in comic, even ridiculous ways. These peripheral characters, though given little backstory or even flesh on their bones, are a delight, each possessed of a personality and mien that complements the others. DeWitt can inject so much exposition with a single sentence that the reader seldom feels the need for elaboration.
Other than the transatlantic relocation, nothing major really happens in the novel (until the end), but the collection of small moments and interactions forms a whole that is brisk in its pace and satisfying in its delivery. The fact that all of the characters are either unlikable or pathetic makes no difference; we want to know what is going to happen to them anyway, and find ourselves rooting for them. Frances, in particular, is a force of nature. She is the most developed and deeply defined of the ragtag cast, her air of superiority masking deep pain and – ultimately – hopelessness. “Frances’s concern was existential; she lately had found herself mired in an eerie feeling, as one standing with her back to the ocean.” Her manner is brusque and sometimes downright rude, but this is balanced by her refinement and flashes of unexpected kindness. When she lets fly with a well-timed expletive, it’s a delight for the reader and imbues the character with endearing humanity.
True to the theatrical form deWitt appears to have been inspired by, French Exit includes multiple layers of meaning and social commentary, wrapped up in a whip-smart package that cracks with wit and wordplay. While we are following the self-inflicted downfall of Frances and Malcolm and getting pulled into their relationships with the other characters, deWitt subtly yet explicitly jabs at us to pay attention to the grander themes of humility, generosity, and even finding one’s purpose in life. The fact that he does so while making us snort in amusement renders the experience that much more enriching. With French Exit, deWitt proves that while The Sisters Brothers may have made his name as an author, it was far from a singular success.