After having enjoyed Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor (2015) his most recent novel, French Exit, was a must-read. A “French exit” is a hasty exit made without saying goodbye. The original term, the French leave, can be traced as far back as 1751, and it means leaving without paying or explaining and just going. In deWitt’s darkly amusing novel about awful upper class Americans, French Exit, people just simply get up and go. The main characters are, on the one hand, sophisticated and wealthy, and on the other hand, in denial, not quite sane, and very unpleasant. However, by the end of the book I had gained a smidgen of admiration for the materfamilias – and for the cat.
In this depiction of social downfall, “Frances Price”, the mother of an adult son, “Malcolm”, who still lives with her, is in a financial quandary. Frances has always been famous, skinny, ridiculously rich and stylish. Her husband, “Franklin”, a corrupt, scary lawyer, dies in his bed, and the money runs out. So, Frances, against all societal norms, does a French exit out of New York, United States, to Paris, France, where she hatches a cunning plan to get her and Malcolm out of their monetary woes.
That involves taking along their mysterious and mean cat, “Small Frank”. Small Frank is interesting, because he isn’t just a cat. Small Frank is “an emotional moron, but he isn’t evil”, as Frances explains. En route they pick up various hangers-on and admirers, until their borrowed Paris apartment is full of odd people who, for some reason, like them a lot. This all leads to a predictable and rather tragic finale, but what that is you’ll have to find out for yourself.
“Frances was in her bed, in her indigo robe, hair upswept, studying herself in a palm mirror and talking to Small Frank, who was sitting beside her and listening with what could be interpreted as interest. ‘It’s like a retirement, in a way,’ she explained. ‘Though, no, I’ve never worked, so what mantle is being retired, even. And then, who retires after the money’s all gone.’ She made a face describing a shrug. She lowered the mirror and looked at Small Frank. ‘I’m not sure how we’re going to get you into Europe,’ she said. She raised her mirror and sucked in her cheeks. ‘All that lovely money.’ She observed a moment of silence before turning the bedside light off.” (p. 65)
Black humour about awful people
At times I wondered whether deWitt is being funny at all, because the reason for mother and son being so dreadful is that they have nightmarish pasts – a school worse than a cross between a Dickensian workhouse and a Danish mental institution à la Peter Høeg, and a marriage more unpleasant than those of the upper-class degenerates in The Great Gatsby, with added mental torture. This goes to show that money piled on to unhappiness just causes more unhappiness.
The clue in understanding the novel is in a small incident, where Frances notices that her lover, the captain of the ocean liner that they are sailing on to Paris, has looked up the word “coda”: A coda is the concluding passage of a piece or movement, typically forming an addition to the basic structure; a concluding event, remark, or section. The only time that this family seems to be doing something positive is depicted in the coda of the novel, right at the end. Francis has the most superb revenge on her terrible dead husband during a seance, and much of the plot leads up to that moment.
Until then, the reader has to thrash through many pages of unlikeable people behaving badly. This unpleasantness includes death, suicide, child abuse, heart-break, selfishness, infidelity, loneliness, betrayal, lies, etc. All of this the characters sail through as if it were perfectly normal and they don’t turn a hair. Not even at a seance. It is as though each of them knows and accepts that they are different from the rest of the world, but doomed to unhappiness. DeWitt depicts this in such a dry, deadpan way that it takes the reader a while to see the wit in it (pardon the pun). But that is how black or gallows humour works – it “seems to be a complex information-processing task,” not an easy laugh, in other words. But we enjoy reading about things like these for the same reason that we find apocalyptic films and horror fiction enjoyable; we’re relieved it’s not us.
And now for the film
The characters are so well-depicted that the book just cries out to be made into a film. And sure enough, in Sept. 2019, Michelle Pheiffer announced on her Instagram feed that Sony Pictures Classics has acquired the U.S. rights to French Exit. It will be directed by Azazel Jacobs, and will star Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges. Sony Pictures Classics also bought the rights in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, China and worldwide airlines. Production on the film was scheduled to start in October 2019, in Montreal and Paris (check out the cover of the screenplay, below, from Ms. Pfeiffer’s Instagram feed):
A small bit of redemption
DeWitt does subtly point out that though all these people are unpleasant, they are still human. (To quote “Shylock” in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” This group sure does, especially in a warm bath.) For them, even just making a friend and being kind is difficult. Expressing love is an almost insurmountable challenge. But though they have been hardened by circumstance, they have feelings. Just not very tender ones. Mostly, vengeful ones.
“Frances said, “I’ve never been so hurt by something in my life as when I saw your face for the first time. And I asked them to take you away, because I felt I’d die if they didn’t.’ ‘Why?’ Malcom asked. ‘Reasons,’ she said. ‘Because you were your father. Because you were me. Because we were all three of us so ruinous.” (p. 215)
Should you read the novel though? I’d recommend you do, before the movie comes out. It’s cathartic, in a way. Anyone who’s ever had their behaviour constrained by conventions and propriety will have their toes curling with delight when they read it. Besides, aren’t you intrigued by the idea of “Small Frank” and what it, sorry, he, turns out to be?
About French Exit
- Finalist, Scotiabank Giller Prize
- Finalist, Oregon Book Awards: Ken Kesey Award for Fiction
- Finalist, Forest of Reading Evergreen Award
- Longlist, International Dublin Literary Award
- International Bestseller
- A Globe and Mail Book of the Year
- A Quill & Quire Book of the Year
- A Chatelaine Book of the Year
- A Now Magazine Book of the Year
- An Amazon.com Best Book of the Month
- A New York Public Library Best Book of the Year
- A Book of the Year
About the header: Photo by M.F. O’Brien of sculpture by Henri Vidal (born May 4, 1864 in Charenton, died in 1918 in Le Cannet), called “Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel” (Cain, after having murdered his brother Abel) which is in the Tuileries Garden in Paris, France.