“Frances Price – tart widow, possessive mother, and Upper East Side force of nature – is in dire straits, beset by scandal and impending bankruptcy. Her adult son Malcolm is no help, mired in a permanent state of arrested development. And then there’s the Prices' aging cat, Small Frank, who Frances believes houses the spirit of her late husband, an infamously immoral litigator and world-class cad whose gruesome tabloid death rendered Frances and Malcolm social outcasts. Putting penury and pariahdom behind them, the family decides to cut their losses and head for the exit. One ocean voyage later, the curious trio land in their beloved Paris, the City of Light serving as a backdrop not for love or romance, but self destruction and economical ruin – to riotous effect. A number of singular characters serve to round out the cast: a bashful private investigator, an aimless psychic proposing a seance, a doctor who makes house calls with his wine merchant in tow, and the inimitable Mme. Reynard, aggressive houseguest and dementedly friendly American expat.”
Part of the charm of reading Patrick deWitt (Undermajordomo Minor, The Sisters Brothers) is getting wrapped up in his slim plotting that is filled with such wonderful oddness.
In French Exit, we get a strange tale filled with strange people and –perhaps- a magical cat. Neither Francis or Malcolm (or most of the people they interact with) for the most part are very likable -but I believe that’s part of the charm of this satirical short novel. As the blurb on the paperback version says, you may never “invite them over to dinner, but they sure make for fun reading.” Both are utterly and hilariously dysfunctional, including Franklin (the husband and father who died 20 years ago) who we see through flashbacks and other descriptions. The book also moves rapidly from one unbelievable situation to the next.
Frances does remind me a lot of Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development through most of the book. Here is a character that was used to being rich, pampered, and able to get away with almost anything (much to her late husband’s dismay). Much like Lucille, Frances uses her cutting comments, her penchant for drinking at all hours, and her domineering ways with everyone, including the coddling of her thirtysomething man-child son Malcolm (who is bumbling around through life because it’s always been steered by his mother) to get through a life she seems bored with.
There is an absurdist aspect about the whole novel, which includes the Price family’s financial situation and how things seemly always work out for them and whole theme of the book being about the “tragedy of manners”. And it even gets a bit fantastical with the reveal that their cat, Small Frank, is harboring the “spirit” (?) of Frances late husband. The subtleness and easy acceptance of this -and the fact that deWitt decides not to explain any of it- is somewhat enduring as well.
As the book proceeds to its end, you understand where it closes at, and even that’s hinted in the title, which “refers to leaving a social gathering without saying your farewells. One moment you're at the bar, or the house party, or the Sunday morning wedding brunch. The next moment you're gone.” Other terms include an Irish goodbye, and ghosting. Still, deWitt writes beautifully and, as always, I love his bizarre humor:
“What’s the opposite of a miracle?” Malcolm asks.