French Exit by Patrick deWitt (3.5 out of 5)

Frances Price, doyenne of upper East Side New York City society, isn’t known for her warmth. This is proven when she finds, and then leaves, her cheating husband’s dead body, and jets off on a ski trip, leaving it for others to find. She’s known for being an eccentric force of nature, joined in her strange, shadowy, almost Grey Gardens-esque little world, by her live-in son Malcolm. Malcolm is a fully grown adult who lives in a state of permanent arrested development. Not the fine TV show, either. He should be helping his mom and finding his place in the world; instead his days are spent having strange telephone discussions with her and planning lunches and dinners- while she’s in the next room. It’s a startling mother/son dynamic here, and it’s highly unsettling. I know some people in real life that fall under that umbrella of unhealthy mother/child dynamic, but the parallels made it even easier for me to tune in to this setting. Darkly humorous, deWitt has a true gift for honing in on family dysfunction. This novel is no different. Add to this “cozy” mother & son family picnic, Malcolm’s love interest, the interesting but insecure Susan. Of course, Frances dislikes her and manages to sink the relationship. The spirit of the dead father Frank, is alive and well and supposedly living inside the family cat, Little Frank. The whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket when Frances is informed her money is all gone. She forms a plan, and only tells Malcolm the smallest of details about it. They sell off what they can, take the money, and run. First to a nice hotel, where they get adjoining suites and talk on the phone to each other throughout the day, mostly about what to order from room service. Then, they’re off to Paris by way of a cruise. The cruise is a hoot, especially for Frances; not so much for Malcolm, who is seasick through much of it. He still manages to make an acquaintance of a psychic on board, while Frances makes moon eyes at the captain. All good things must come to an end, and they do once Frances and Malcolm arrive in Paris. Malcolm quickly finds out that Frances has gotten the okay for the two of them to borrow her friend Joan’s unused apartment. It isn’t long before quite the odd band of dwellers begin to accumulate in the apartment. The neighbor, Mme. Reynard, invites herself over to visit, and decides to move in with the duo. Uninvited. Little Frank, the antisocial but aging cat, gets out, and Frances hires a P.I. to find the psychic they met on the cruise, in hopes of contacting the cat, to find out why he’s run away (another example of animals being more intelligent than humans). Malcolm’s mixed-message-bordering-on-self-pity phone calls to Susan in the States end with her showing up at the apartment, with fed-up fiance Tom in tow. Tom quickly figures out Malcolm is a spoiled mama’s boy who cannot defy her for his own happiness. For the record, Tom was one of my favorite characters. Joan, the owner of the apartment and the only true friend that Frances and Malcolm have, shows up after she receives a strange postcard from Frances, who had told a cafe owner to destroy it, but it was sent. Joan tries to get to the bottom of this whole thing. Who are all these fucking people? What is Frances up to? I have to tell you, along with Tom and Joan, Frances was my favorite character. The truest glimmers of light in a dark novel (or place) are often those with the red glowing eyes. Days and nights pass with Joan wandering Paris while reliving her past relationships with her dead husband and her alive-in-physicality son. You grow to like Frances, despite her snarling delivery to many and her treatment of some being downright rude. Malcolm is the sore thumb, but that ending….well, that ending packs quite a punch. A sucker punch. Once I got over being pissed at it, I realized that this is what DeWitt excels at. He brings in a myriad cast of characters, wipes the floor with the characters and the reader, and then runs off, cackling maniacally. In no way did I see this book ending as I did. But once the cloud parted, you realize that this timely look at the darkness of shared depression, the winking lights of temptation, the nauseatingly simpatico of the mother/son dynamic, the social classes and the long-winded injustice of those below that, and yes, deWitt even finds a way to include racial tension in this kooky Parisian satire. It is largely satire, but if you can’t handle jokes well, you better look elsewhere. deWitt has authored two other books that I have read, The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor. Those were the same style of writing, but this was more dark than he has ventured before. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the ending, although it was pretty obvious what would go down. Still, a great book from an underrated author. Check it out.

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~ by generationgbooks on October 16, 2018.

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