Patrick deWitt’s latest novel, French Exit, once again delivers the same dark and witty humour that he has expertly sewn into all of his previous works, but this time it’s applied to a tale of family drama. However, unlike his last book Undermajordomo Minor or the critically-panned hit The Sisters Brothers, the Canadian author’s fourth novel is also depressingly bleak to its core. The story follows 65-year-old widow Frances Price — a prideful, tart and possessive upper class socialite — and her 32-year-old son Malcolm — a bored, self-loathing manchild with no discernible direction in life — through, what deWitt calls, “a tragedy of manners,” where comedy and tragedy go hand-in-hand, and where the ride is more satisfying than the destination.
Frances was born into money, then married up into more money. Such privileges have allowed her to indulge in a lifestyle of excess without ever having to work. In her prime, Frances was admired with dignity and prestige. But her poor handling of her husband Frank’s death, some years back, caused her and Malcolm to be ostracized from the rest of high society. Ever since then, the two have been burning through their family fortune well into impending bankruptcy. In order to escape from the clutches of embarrassment and destitution (but mostly embarrassment), the pair — along with their cat, Small Frank — flee to Paris, France by way of ocean cruise after hastily liquidating what little assets they had left.
Once in Paris, the close-knit mother and son are put up in a vacant apartment by Frances’ only real friend, Joan. Immediately afterwards, they resort to their old grandiose habits, purchasing expensive gifts, drinking heavily, and all around spending money they don’t have towards their self-destruction and financial ruin; Although, this time in a foreign city where there’s no one to recognize them. No one to judge. It is at this point that the story hits a snag, wandering into aimless territory only to try and tie itself back together at the end.
On a positive note, a motley cast of peculiar characters are included to liven up the story and provide much-needed comic relief. There’s Madeleine, a penniless medium; Julius, a shy private investigator; Mme. Reynard, an overtly friendly American expat; and Susan, a young woman hopelessly in love with Malcolm. The interactions involving these characters range from delightfully pleasant to ridiculously absurd. Ultimately, it’s the Price matriarch Frances who steals the show. She’s uptight and quick with an insult but also capable of unexpected acts of kindness and love, and it’s her brush with existentialism that will garner sympathy from readers.
While there may be little to French Exit in terms of overall plot — the small individual moments, character interactions, witty dialogue and deWitt’s wry, sardonically deadpan writing make this tragicomedy a page turner. At the very least, It amusingly explores the dynamics between mother and son, and the haves and have nots, emphasizing in its conclusion at least one ascertainable point: all good things must end.