“The first lesser deWitt” – French Exit by Patrick deWitt

Let’s begin with Malcolm, shall we? “A pile of American garbage”, “an exotic pet, a stopgap antidote to her college doldrums”, a “lugubrious toddler of a man”. Malcolm is the son of Franklin, rich banker thought by some to be a bit of a bastard, and Frances, society doyen, character, loved, admired and feared, quite rightly, in equal measure. We meet Malcolm and Frances just as they start to come to terms with the fact that their fortunes are dwindling. Joan, a friend of Frances, offers the use of a flat in Paris and so Malcolm, casually ditching long-term love Susan, and Frances hit the high seas with only their cat, Small Frank, for company.

Imagine, if you will, French Exit as a sort of cornball 30s caper (Cary Grant would be in there somewhere, Irene Dunne perhaps, Katherine Hepburn) shot through with a dash of what Patrick deWitt always brings to the party – surprising words that conjure the world afresh, odd intersections, peculiar characters, and, perhaps more than anything else, the rather delicious sense that anything can happen (embodied here by Small Frank, the cat who isn’t really a cat). Upon arriving in France, Malcolm (who is the kind of guy you’d like to give a good shake too, think of the cyclist from Belleville Rendezvous and you won’t go far wrong) drifts from day to day as his mother (who is really the focus of the novel although she does have to compete with a fair old ensemble including a sulky psychic called Madeline and a humble detective called Julius among others) gets to work on hatching out a plan. We’re not privy to the plan until the very close of the book but, between ourselves, it is what you think it is (the title of the book gives you a clue: a French exit means leaving a gathering without saying your farewells).

It is all, for the most part, very pleasant. It’s slight, comedic, perfectly reasonable; but, coming on the heels of The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor, it feels like the first lesser deWitt. If his second and third books were his Royal Tenembaums and Grand Budapest Hotel, respectively, then French Exit should be viewed as his Moonrise Kingdom – by which we mean to say, it’s fine, it’s good, you’ll like it if you’re a fan but it isn’t – quite – up to the thrilling standard of its predecessors.

Any Cop?: Subtitled ‘a tragedy of manners’, French Exit is a novel that sneaks towards the edge, glimpses over and then pulls back rather than jumping.

 

 

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