“Have you fallen in with a mad cast of plucky, down at heel characters?” asks a surprising antagonist in Patrick de Witt’s surprising and delightful new novel, FRENCH EXIT.
The query comes from a cat, which gives this hilariously biting satire a touch of the mog magicals, a feline flourish that fuels the narrative and keeps it purring.
Think Auntie Mame out of Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose saga, FRENCH EXIT is the kind of book that sparks envy in other writers, procurement by motion picture producers, and competition from actors hoping to play these characters and wrap their mouths around the glorious dialogue.
The title alludes to an escape from Manhattan to Paris by Frances and her grown son, Malcolm, and their cat, Small Frank, via cruise ship.
The first third of the novel takes part in New York and the vessel, with a detailed account of Frances’ fiscal planning and faint reasoning for decamping, replete with an episode at the Captain’s Table, a visit to the ship’s morgue, and a defused contretemps with a Customs official.
The rest of FRENCH EXIT is set in Paris where Frances and Malcolm encounter a mad cast of ex pats, winemakers, private eyes and people presenting from their past.
De Witt has precision machined a marvellous and memorable woman in Frances, an elegiac and elegant eccentric that electrifies every page she inhabits.
In an economy of peerless prose, the author gives us backstory of her upbringing and the dissolution of her marriage to the lothario lawyer, Franklin Price.
‘The first time she had set foot in a church was for her mother’s funeral. Looking up at Christ’s admirable rib cage, she quietly told him, ‘’ I’m glad she’s dead. Thank you for killing her.’’
‘Her father smelled of cigarettes and drink and aftershave, a combination of scents that she loved devotedly from this moment to the span of her life. Franklin had emanated that same deadly troika when they’d met, before the alcohol had turned sour in him, and the smoke acrid.’
There is a brutal wit at play here, packaged in a madcap spree. FRENCH EXIT is haunting and hilarious, complete with, arguably, the most sincere, surreal and splendidly spirited séance in literature – a séance on a wet nosed after-life.
As Mme Reynard , the expat Paris-cile ruefully says, “Do you ever feel that adulthood was thrust upon you at too young an age and that you are still essentially a child mimicking the behaviours of the adults all around you in hopes they won’t discover the meagre contents of your heart?”, PARIS EXIT is a mixing pot of memories and sweet melancholy, stirred with satire and hi jinx, in a climate of d’humeur orageuse.
The wild, eccentric socialite could be a cliché, but in De Witt’s witty wordplay, it is made irresistibly fresh and tantalising. And besides, as Frances herself says in the novel, “Yes, my life is riddled by clichés, but do you know what a cliché is? It’s a story so fine and thrilling that it’s grown old in its hopeful retelling. People tell it. Not so many live it.”
If you are up for a spree, you’ll have such an exciting time, you’ll shriek with delight, lost in the pages of FRENCH EXIT. It’s an exit worth finding for a great literary escape.
FRENCH EXIT by Patrick de Witt is published by Bloomsbury.