French Exit by Patrick DeWitt, review by Shelly Walston
Patrick deWitt's French Exit is witty, clever, and delightfully dark in all the right ways.
Frances, a well-to-do New York socialite, finds herself in the direst of straits after spending her dead husband’s money frivolously. Add to that her tendency to ignore consequence, and the dire straits become even more desperate. She and her adult son Malcolm are forced out of New York, with (GASP!) only $150,000. Along with the baggage of the scandal surrounding the circumstances of her husband’s death – and Frances’s questionable response to discovering his corpse - the two journey across the Atlantic with their cat, Small Frank, who is curmudgeonly and cunning and quite possibly possessed by Frances’s dead husband Frank. Their departure from New York is both comical and tragic.
While aboard the ship that carries them to Paris, Malcolm meets a medium whose special ability is seeing “green” – her way of knowing a person is nearing death. This character, added to the others who Frances and Malcolm meet, including Mme. Reynard, a squidgy expat who expertly wheedles her way into their lives, a private investigator who packs up his bags and joins them in their small yet posh apartment, and a doctor whose bedside manner can best be described as drunkenly perfunctory, and the cast of characters is complete and riotous.
As the novel progresses, readers snack on the tiny morsels of recollection that Frances and Malcolm mete out while putting together the story of Frank’s death and Frances’s impending pennilessness. There are moments when deWitt reveals the darkness that has left Malcolm in arrested development and the relationships that left Frances with no one but a friend from her childhood camp days.
The novel races to its conclusion as Frances works purposefully to her last penny.