Timed to coincide with the release of the film version of his much-loved second book The Sisters Brothers, Canadian author Patrick deWitt drops novel No. 4 in our laps. French Exit is a brief comedy of manners, an amuse-gueule, if you will, about rich widow Frances Price running out of money late in life and relocating from New York to Paris in order to eke a final few months of glamour out of her decadent lifestyle.
Accompanying Frances on this ill-fated trip are her man-child adult son, Malcolm, and cat, Small Frank. The kitty is possessed by the reincarnated soul of her dead husband, Franklin Price, a monstrous lawyer who made his fortune defending the indefensible.
So far, so deWitt. The Sisters Brothers established an arched eyebrow tone that is maintained here. Despite being a short novel written in short chapters, there are long passages where not much happens other than the characters exchanging wry quips while bored. Fortunately, deWitt has a real gift for sarcastic put-downs. In the early stages, it is easy to find oneself nodding and smiling often. Oscar Wilde tends to be name-dropped around any author who successfully pulls off darkly comedic banter, but in deWitt’s case the comparison is apt.
The problem is that it doesn’t amount to much. A reader’s grin risks becoming a rictus when there is nothing else on offer but witty repartee. The lack of any discernible plot will not be an issue for deWitt diehards who enjoy his curious character studies – and there is certainly much to love here – but the casual reader may experience an ennui settling on the shoulders as the chapters slip by. Frances entrances everyone she encounters in Paris, drawing a circle of adepts to her borrowed apartment. Malcolm tries (not very hard) to rekindle a failed relationship. Small Frank absconds to wander the streets, and is contacted via a spirit medium Malcolm slept with on the sea voyage. The whole thing has the feel of a slightly cynical Tom Stoppard stage play – not necessarily bad, but irritating if its audience is not in the right mood.
Still, it is refreshing to find a book that eschews conventions by loudly proclaiming its essential pointlessness and instead concentrating on entertaining the reader for a few hours by offering a glimpse into the life of a nouveau riche family brought to heel. No gunfights this time, sadly. JD
Bloomsbury, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Patrick deWitt, French Exit". Subscribe here.