Any book set in Paris is irresistible to me. French Exit by Patrick deWitt, who also wrote The Sisters Brothers, is a contemporary novel that reads like a 1930’s farce. When I first started reading, the language struck me as peculiar; the characters were caricatures and the plot implausible. But the further into it I got, the more intrigued I became. French Exit was short-listed for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize, so there were obviously people much smarter than I am who thought the book worth finishing so I soldiered on.
The story begins with Malcolm Price and his widowed mother Frances living in New York City. After the death of her husband, Frank Price, Frances sets about blowing through their considerable fortune as quickly as possible. This is where the implausible comes in. Why is she doing this when she will need money to live on? When her banker informs her she’s broke, she’s forced to liquidate her remaining assets and sets off for Paris with her son Malcolm and their peculiar old cat, Small Frank.
Frances, Malcolm and Small Frank borrow a friend’s Paris flat and their little threesome soon grows to include an eccentric assortment of characters. We learn more about Malcolm’s’ unconventional childhood and his mother’s unconventional approach to mothering during a story-telling game conducted one evening under the influence of much wine.
I always enjoy authors taking me on a descriptive journey through the streets of Paris and deWitt accomplishes this beautifully. The narrative picks up speed as it nears the end which comes rather quickly as the book is a fast read. I was tempted to stop reading shortly after I began the book but my curiosity about where the story was going keep me going and I’m glad I did. It was fun, quick and quirky. It didn’t win the Giller but, as they say, being nominated was an honour and justifies reading it. Patrick deWitt (born on Vancouver Island and living in Seattle) has a strange imagination, reminiscent of another Giller nominee, Heather O’Neill. I’d give it 7 out of 10.