French Exit by Patrick deWitt: laughter all the way

Despite its daft adventures, good jokes and amusing characters, the story flounders

 Patrick deWitt:  creates a cast of brilliant characters in his new novel French Exit. Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Patrick deWitt: creates a cast of brilliant characters in his new novel French Exit. Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

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.

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