|Oct/Nov 2018 Reviews & Interviews|
Bloomsbury. 2018. 244 pp.
ISBN 978 1 52660 118 6.
Two unlikeable people: Frances, a 65-year-old American woman who all her life has used wealth (her father's, then her husband's) and her own beauty to behave exactly as she pleases. And Malcolm, the self-focused, unmotivated, adult son she trails in her wake. For a long time I thought the cat, Small Frank, was the most likable character in the book, but then he turned out to be the reincarnation of her very unpleasant, dead husband.
French Exit is a farce, and I am not particularly fond of farces. Some readers will, no doubt, find the bizarre, ridiculous situations hilarious, but they just made me think of crazy surrealist paintings. For a long time I wondered why I was bothering to read on, but the cat had me hooked.
The "plot" is simple. Frances, who is now a widow, uses up all her inheritance and moves with her son to a friend's unoccupied apartment in Paris. Not surprisingly Frances has only this one friend. Malcolm has an on-off girlfriend who seems to have fallen in love with his insular lack of interest in life, but typically, he abandons her back in New York.
On the unprofessional advice of her lawyer, and with the help of a shady figure called Ralph Rudy, Frances salvages as much money as she can from her possessions. Then she departs for Paris on a cruise ship with 17,000 Euros in cash in a holdall under the Valium-comatose body of Small Frank. Once in Paris, she makes two decisions. One: to spend all the money. Two: to kill the cat.
Small Frank comes to know of Frances's murderous intent, so he escapes. But finding rough living difficult, he attempts to commit suicide by throwing himself off the Eiffel Tower—twice. Both times he survives and limps away, "taking bitter solace from the thought that he would likely die from malnutrition in the near future."
Frances then employs a clairvoyant to find and communicate with Small Frank, and at the séance we learn how the cat came to embody the spirit of the dead husband.
Much of the action is fueled by alcohol, and the various characters in the book are people with problems who just happen to be drawn into Frances' chaotic life.
Frances spends or gives away all her money. The final scene of this drama, so-to-speak, could have been played as high melodrama, but the style throughout the book is flat and unemotional. We are disengaged observers, and since Frances' actions are signaled ahead of their occurrence, there is no drama.
The "Coda" is inconsequential. And the last we see of Small Frank is as "a mangy figure" sitting outside Frances' Paris apartment, gazing up at her window. It is all rather anti-climatic. And although Patrick deWitt is clearly a talented writer, I remained unmoved.