Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
There are times that a well-written novel needs little action or intrigue, but is instead driven forward by the gradual building of the emotional complexity of its characters. Acclaimed author, Patrick DeWitt, does just that in his latest novel, French Exit.
In some ways, the story is a throwback to another era of story-telling, perhaps that of F. Scott Fitzgerald where adulation centred on New York elites and not on the comings-and-goings of today's reality television stars. And as such, DeWitt draws the readers' interest into the final episodes of the life of an ageing but still stunningly beautiful socialite, Frances Price, and her socially awkward son, Malcolm.
Frances is plagued for years with gossip about failing to notify the police of the death of her husband Frank until after she had finished her ski vacation. At first, this seemingly callous act leads the police to suspect foul play on Frances' part. She is quickly cleared of all charges, but not before the court of public opinion has passed its own verdict against her. The controversy only makes Frances Price more interesting for the city's hordes of hangers-on and social climbers. But Frances will have none of them. Her teenaged son, Malcolm, largely raised by nannies and in boarding schools, knows little of either parent until his mother brings him home in the aftermath of his father's death. Frances quickly decides that Malcolm should be tutored at home, and cuts him off from contact with his peers and much of society. The reclusive mother-son relationship and the ensuing eccentricities that Malcolm develops are the bedrock of the story.
After her husband's death, Frances also embarks on a spending spree. Clearly determined to bankrupt herself, there is a lot of money for Frances to go through before achieving her objective. Seven years later, the bailiffs are finally at her door. Frances embarks on her final hurray. She sells all her personal belongings through a shady broker, pockets the money and heads off with Malcolm on a luxury liner to live in a friend's apartment in Paris. Into this French exile, she also brings along her cat, Small Frank, whose connection to Frances turns out to be more intimately human than the readers would anticipate.
The sea voyage by Frances, Malcolm and Small Frank is marked by amusing albeit substandard amorous adventures: first, Frances with the ship's bucolic captain and then Malcolm with Madeleine, a young psychic, hired to entertain the passengers. Madeleine's refusal to tell her clients anything but the truth gets her into trouble when she informs one passenger of her imminent death. The distraught passenger promptly has a heart attack, and Madeleine is sent to the ship's brig. As soon as the ship lands in France, the ship's captain garnishes Madeleine's wages and unceremoniously boots her off his ship. Malcolm and Madeline part ways in France, that is until the young psychic's skills are called upon to find a wayward Small Frank and bring closure to Malcolm's mother's unresolved issues with her late husband.
DeWitt's ability to weave humour into idyllic albeit unconventional scenes of Paris is a large part of what really makes the story. In this, DeWitt mirrors the brilliance of John Irving's knack for capturing the romantic and melding it with the absurd. For francophile readers who enjoy the eccentric, French Exit is a must read.
French Exit is published by House of Anansi.