September must be the time for foreigners to arrive in Paris and either assimilate to the French way of life or ignore it completely. Earlier this month, we had Sebastian Faulks' Paris Echo, which features a pair of strangers experiencing the city, one for the first time and one on a return visit, and now the Canadian writer Patrick deWitt tackles the same theme in one of those books that almost defies criticism, for it is so out-there, so utterly bizarre, that I suspect it will land on as many "best of" lists at year's end as "worst of" ones. Not a bad thing, for it's always interesting to encounter a novel so audacious and singular that it polarises readers from the first page.
French Exit features one of the most entertaining mother and son duos that I've encountered in fiction, Frances and Malcolm Price. In their mid-sixties and early-thirties respectively, they've been accustomed to a life of pure luxury in their Upper West Side home but now find themselves in penury due to Frances' excessive spending and have no choice but to flee the US for a friend's apartment in Paris.
Neither Frances nor Malcolm seem to live in the real world. She has all the warmth of a polar bear, and the charm of a grizzly, her every utterance recalling Lucille Bluth, the entitled and supercilious matriarch of the television show Arrested Development. He, on the other hand, is little more than a blob in human form, following a few paces behind Mother, floating around in swimming pools with all the elegance of the Titanic in its latter hours, and doing whatever he can to avoid his fiancee Susan. To use the same pop-culture reference, he's Buster Bluth.
But they don’t travel alone. They also bring a cat, Small Frank, the host animal for the spirit of Frances’ late husband, Frank. (Large Frank, presumably.) Much of Frances’ notoriety has come from the fact that, upon discovering her husband’s dead body in bed one morning, she popped off for a ski weekend instead of alerting the authorities, leaving him to begin the process of decomposition. Upon her return, Frank had deposited himself in Small Frank, following three days of licking. (The cat licking the man, that is, not the other way around.) And having contacted a medium on board their transatlantic crossing, Frank is now able to communicate with his wife and son whenever he feels like it. Until, that is, Small Frank runs away.
There's no question that the novel is very, very funny. DeWitt delights in making Frances as horrendous as possible, criticising anyone who happens to cross her path and spending the remnants of her fortune with such careless abandon that she makes Johnny Depp look positively frugal. Similarly, the quiet sadness of Malcolm is well drawn, an unfortunate boy who somehow manages to prove catnip to the ladies despite being the literary love-child of Ignatius J Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces and Howard Hughes.
However, when the laughs die down, the reader is left wondering what DeWitt is trying to say. Is it a satire on conspicuous consumption? A mockery of the one per cent? A lampooning of a once illustrious but now down at heel family? These are all things that are worth writing about but, if so, the mockery is too often diminished by broad caricature and the ridicule too often tempered by a degree of tolerant affection.
Ironically, considering the novel’s title, it is the first half of the book, set in New York, which is the more successful. The characters are established, the humour is vibrant, their dilemma clear, and it’s only when they reach France that DeWitt seems to run out of ideas.
He throws a few others into the mix – a lonely widow, a private investigator – but the action descends into a farce that seems to have little purpose other than to fill the pages. They put on a talent show, tell each other stories, go in search of Small Frank. Old friends from the US appear at random but seem uncertain what they’re doing there.
That said, French Exit is never less than entertaining but at times it feels as if the author has created a cast of brilliant characters but isn't sure how best to use them once they've wandered on to the stage. The truth is, good jokes, amusing characters and daft adventures will only get you so far but when the story flounders, the reader is left turning the final pages and asking, what on earth was that all about?
John Boyne’s latest novel is A Ladder to the Sky (Doubleday)