French Exit is Nasty Fun

French Exit: A Novel (2018)
By Patrick de Witt
Ecco, 244 pages.

It’s not easy to write a book with no likable characters, yet Patrick de Witt has managed to do so. French Exit is a black comedy that is nasty, satisfying, and funny.

Upper East Side widow Frances Prince is at the center of French Exit. She once turned heads, but is now a fading socialite whose deceased litigator husband would have made Roy Cohn seem warm and fuzzy. But at least Franklin Price made a lot of money. We’re talking a lot of money Frances was more than his match; her vanity ran deeper than his. She returned home one day and found Franklin had died. Damned if that was going to ruin her plans for a weekend ski trip. She went and reported his death when she got home! The tabloids trashed her and some of the upper crust ostracized her, but she simply didn’t care. She’s just sentimental enough to have an aged cat named Small Frank whom she insists is her late husband reincarnated. Don’t presume she treats him well.

Frances and her no-account so Malcolm live the life of the 1%: luxurious hotels, scattered secondary properties, lunches that cost a small fortune, fine furnishings, and enough expensive personal items to outfit a small museum. They are the sort who tell others–waiters, salespeople, hotel staff, lawyers–what to do in the belief that doing their bidding is what the little people were placed on earth to do. The only things Frances and Malcolm don’t have is an ounce of commonsense or an inkling of how to manage their resources.

The glam wagon’s wheels fall off when the family lawyer tells Frances that she has run out of money and, no, he can’t magically conjure any more. In fact, Frances needs to sell her assets just to survive. You would think this would be devastating news, but Frances isn’t one to let reality get in her way. She commissions a shady man named Ralph Rudy to sell everything and plots her next move.

Malcolm is less than useless in all of this, as he is a clueless man-child. He reminded me of Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, even though Malcolm is neither as crude nor as sloppy as Ignatius. Both, though, are mama’s boys, neither has any discernible life skills, and each is essentially unemployable. Frances treats Malcolm as she would a servant and he scarcely notices. Even his long-term girlfriend Susan has grown tired of his perpetual boyhood, but his too is lost on Malcolm; he has an uncanny ability–inherited from his mother–simply to ignore things he does not wish to hear. I don’t wish to reveal too much, so I will only say that Frances’ ‘solution’ to her dilemma is unique, involves traveling to Paris, and has nothing to do with things one would usually associate with the City of Lights.  

As earlier noted, there aren’t any characters in this book with whom you’d ever wish to meet. Frances is cruel, imperious, and implacable; Malcolm is an upper-class twit; Rudy is a sleazebag; and the entire Manhattan social circle that gads about Frances is insufferable. De Witt’s metaphorical sleight of hand trick is to immerse readers so deeply into the muck of Frances’ world that we keep turning the pages. To paraphrase an old adage, if you’re going to be outrageous, go whole hog. Frances is as exasperating as any human being can possibly be, but because she has no shame or filters and no one knows what she’ll do next, she’s also funny–in a dark way. Everyone else in her orbit is essentially along for the ride, including we readers. Before you know it, we start to care about Frances, even though you know that she wouldn’t give a damn whether anyone did or did not.

French Exit is odd to the very end. I would caution you to turn off your own discernment filters. There’s really no need to like anyone in the book, nor do you have to imagine how to bring them to their just desserts. They are perfectly capable of screwing up without your help.

Rob Weir  


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