Toward the end of Patrick deWitt’s new novel, French Exit, its sexagenarian protagonist admits while she’s touring Paris’s Musée d’Orsay with a friend that her life might appear a cliché. “[And,] yes, my life is riddled by clichés,” Frances Price says, “but do you know what a cliché is? It’s a story so old and thrilling that it’s grown old in its hopeful retelling.”
That iffy definition of cliché is strange sugar-coating coming from the usually acerbic Frances. Yet it’s true that the broad strokes of Frances’s life will be old hat to anyone remotely familiar with that huge genre of fiction focused on wealth, its trappings, and its cyclical loss. Frances was born in New York City to privilege and married a litigator named Franklin Price who amassed a fortune via vague, unethical means. Twenty years before the book begins, Franklin was found by Frances dead in their bed, ostensibly killed by what the coroner called the most a powerful heart attack he’d ever seen. Frances, a carpe diem kind of gal, is left to raise their young son, Malcolm, in her offhand way. She also burns through family money until, late in life, she suddenly finds herself facing bankruptcy and social shunning like an Edith Wharton character. She and the now thirty-two-year-old Malcolm, who still lives with her, are offered escape and a new start by a friend who extends them her Paris apartment.
Given that plot, French Exit piggybacks on not one but two landscapes trod by authors to the point of stampede: the wealthy, dysfunctional American family facing financial ruin and the American expats in Paris.
French Exit, a term also used to describe departing a social event without saying goodbye, begins in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, that social-caste incubator zone keenly scrutinized in a parade of best-sellers—Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue, to name only three. Part two takes place in Paris, a city to which a legion of novelists—Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Diane Johnson, among them—have dispatched their characters, to great transformative effect. France is also where Wharton, the unparalleled chronicler of American class and class anxiety, chose to live her final years.
Given such heavy traffic in both literary idioms, finding a fresh way forward is tough for any writer. Publishers have been reduced to inventing hackneyed hybrids, seen in the marketing of Everybody Rise (2015), the much-hyped debut novel by Stephanie Clifford (no relation to Stormy Daniels) set in Manhattan in the year 2006; it was billed as “Edith Wharton meets Bonfire of the Vanities for the 21st century.” Novelist Lionel Shriver cleverly took a different tack in her 2016 novel The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047, an eviscerating, closely observed study of an American family’s descent into financial ruin: she set it in the not-too-distant future.
The prospect of deWitt taking on the moneyed New York-Paris axis or exploring the continental class divide in his fourth novel is intriguing, if unexpected. The novelist is a masterful storyteller who propels narrative with witty, weird vignettes and digressions. He’s also known for working in demimondes, and for creating original landscapes populated by sinister, offbeat, violent, eccentric characters. His range has been virtuosic: His first novel, Ablutions: Notes for a Novel (the book is literally notes for a novel), is set in a Hollywood dive bar. His second, the wildly acclaimed The Sisters Brothers, takes place during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Next came the adult folk-fairy tale Undermajordomo Minor, largely set in a remote castle in olde Europe.
There’s something almost perversely bracing, then, that French Exit is such an old-timey, anachronistic, genteel book. Unlike the sprawling, ambitious generational sagas common in Luxe Lit, the novel narrowcasts to explore the co-dependent dynamic between Frances, “a moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years” and the “broody and unkempt” Malcolm. The characters don’t invite affection at first meeting. Frances, an admitted slow starter as a mother, rescued her emotionally bruised twelve-year-old from boarding school after her husband’s death. His subsequent upbringing—daily outings to art galleries and museums instead of proper school—is reminiscent of the education received by the precociously intellectual young people in The Royal Tenenbaums, directed by Wes Anderson, who is also the perfect person to handle this dialogue-heavy novel’s screen adaptation, with Whit Stillman running a close second. (Where writers have not feared to tread, filmmakers have not either.)
Mother and son are bound by a caustic affection and absence of what psychologists call healthy boundaries. “Did you do a good job?” Frances asks Malcolm after he has sex. “Not a very good one, no,” he answers. The adult Malcolm is a sad-sack kleptomaniac, which doesn’t stand in the way of his acquiring a nice, long-suffering fiancée whom the possessive, meddling Frances wants out of picture; the move to Paris grants Frances her wish. There’s a third member of this family unit who can’t be forgotten: Small Frank, the cat who showed up when Franklin Price expired; it’s accepted in this universe that the feline houses Big Frank’s ghost.
The Prices’ life in New York City is laid out lightly before mother, son, and cat set off on an ocean voyage to France, a passage that gives deWitt opportunity to do what he does well: depict characters in transit. Some of the novel’s most memorable scenes are set on board. One, in which Frances has a failed sexual encounter with the ship’s captain, yields this clever descriptor of his penis: “a glum mushroom caving in on itself.” Aphorisms dot the novel, such as this one about Frances: “She had occasionally in her life found herself loving men not in spite of but for their stupidity.”
DeWitt’s skill in fusing dark humour with poignancy is in effect in French Exit, if pulled back to a whimsy noir. The wondrously coarse, grisly details of past novels (a horse’s diseased eyeball scooped out with a spoon in The Sisters Brothers; Undermajordomo Minor’s S&M sex) are largely absent, save a brawl among “immigrants” in a Parisian park and Frances saying “fuck” a lot. A madcap pathos prevails, with no shortage of quirk; one major plot point involves a cat séance.
The various bounders, grifters, and killers who populated deWitt’s previous books have been replaced this time out by an offbeat if benign crew—a clairvoyant, a shy PI, a wine merchant, a lonely widowed American ex-pat and a physician named Dr. Touche—who converge in the Prices’ Paris apartment united in mutual misery and by storylines that threaten to muddle the novel at times.
Anyone expecting a Wolfe-ian examination of status or class, or a satire of privilege of the sort examined in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, will be disappointed. In those books, the scene in which Frances buys a Chanel dress at the department store Galeries Lafayette (instead of at the Chanel flagship on rue Cambon) could be read as a statement on status signifiers—or perhaps for its bathos. Not this one.
French Exit is a novelty, not quite an American drawing-room comedy nor a French farce. The voyeurism and schadenfreude-fueled catharsis that make stories about the travails of the wealthy so popular with readers are absent. The book’s publisher, House of Anansi, calls it a “tragedy of manners,” the term also used to describe Henry James’ later novels—invoking a comparison that is bound to be unfavourable for deWitt. Yet, in fairness, the book’s lighter, comic approach is readily communicated by the cover’s droll illustration and playful typeface.
Comedies, or tragedies, of manners require well-defined rendering of time and place to skewer social convention. French Exit is artfully vague in its timelessness, again summoning comparisons to Wes Anderson. One character whistles the 1950s tune “Hershey Bar”; the glove-wearing, sharp-tongued Frances could have walked out of a 1940s screwball comedy; cell phones don’t seem to exist, yet there are mentions of a Nike shirt and “reality-based TV shows.” Frances and Malcolm speak on landlines from different rooms of their apartment. The idea that mother and son could avoid scandal by travelling to the Continent is also quaint, suggesting that the internet hadn’t been invented.
Malcolm finds solace in his belief that his mother was “overfine” for this world: “She belonged to another time and it was her ugly luck to be born among us.” That’s another cliché offering comfort that doesn’t add up. Given what we know of Frances, no era would have delivered happiness. She doesn’t help her own case, or her son’s, or Small Frank’s, as she actively ploughs through her remaining cash, at one point literally flushing euros down the toilet.
Writers are allowed to play with time, of course. But place is oddly non grata here too. Sadly for the Prices, Paris just doesn’t exist as the transformative force of the sort experienced by Lewis Lambert Strether in James’s The Ambassadors or Isabel Walker, the young American protagonist of Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce. Other settings in deWitt novels have been presented more vibrantly; San Francisco in The Sisters Brothers, for example, is “a madness of possibilities.” The Paris of French Exit is more of a generic stage set, with a nod to famous landmarks—Saint-Sulpice, Place des Vosges, Musée d’Orsay. The city’s decayed elegance does, however, provide an obvious metaphor for Frances, for whom revisiting presents a painful reminder of a happier, more solvent time. Oddly, it’s Small Frank, the character with the most complex interior life, who interacts with the city most fully as he prowls through it in a depressed state.
The cat’s anxious quest is the sort of offbeat detail readers expect from deWitt, though this example is more sedate than usual. As an author, he has amassed huge reader goodwill for his ability to upend literary genres. That he entered the well-travelled arena of Wealth Lit in his fourth novel, and chose not to challenge it but deliver a retrograde tale destined to charm many if not all readers, then, makes French Exit almost iconoclastic.
Anne Kingston was a Canadian journalist and the author of The Edible Man: Dave Nichol, President’s Choice & the Making of Popular Taste and The Meaning of Wife.