French Exit

by Patrick deWitt

I’m a fan of Patrick deWitt. (I don’t think I’ve kept this a secret.) So naturally I was tickled pink when I heard he had a new book out. And, hearing it consistently described as something of a “tragedy of manners,” I wasn’t particularly surprised. Given what I saw as parallels to P. G. Wodehouse in Undermajordomo Minor––especially in dialogue between the protagonist and the absurd majordomo, Olderbough––it didn’t seem such a stretch to move stronger stylistically in that direction, as I immediately imagined. (Though deWitt points more to Evelyn Waugh as an influence; I suspect I’ll have to read a bit more than Brideshead to see it, or at least read a book again that I don’t remember well.)

But let’s not get too carried away here. What’s French Exit actually about? It’s probably a bit difficult to explain succinctly and in a way that sounds compelling, but I’ll give it a try. On the cusp of bankruptcy––slightly over the cusp, more accurately––Frances Price and her son, Malcolm, flee the New York high life to have a “new start” in Paris, France. Accompanied by their cat, Small Frank, who both believe to be possessed by the soul of Frances’ late husband, Frances sets off with ruinous abandon to spend what meager funds she has left while Malcolm tries to come to terms with the traumatic rejection he experienced in his childhood.

French Exit isn’t big and exciting out the gate, and I can respect that because this is at the service of the overall story. deWitt approaches his book with a patient hand, showcasing his characters and letting them come to life in our minds before using them for anything particularly funny or tragic. As well, the moments that stand out had a lot of work go into them. It’s kind of hard to explain without pointing at something specific, but the author sets small actions in motion and layers them with bits of description and characterization, only getting to the payoff after enough built up and felt real. It comes off as the work of an experienced author when things feel meaningful without being forced, when you can feel a depth to the narrative.

It wasn’t perfect. I’d suggest that this was at least a bit more tedious than deWitt’s previous work, but, thankfully, the passages I struggled with weren’t long and I suspect they were that “necessary tedium” I occasionally encounter, where the slower sections were instrumental to the meaningful ones feeling as such. And, anyway, it was still great. I laughed out loud on more than one occasion, and I was at least once on the edge of tears when the heart shone through, so I guess you can take that as a fairly strong recommendation.