All manner of tragedies
On the surface, and when you read the blurb on the cover, you imagine the latest Patrick de Witt novel, French Exit, would be a comedy of manners set amongst the moneyed New York elite. Much like his acclaimed 2011 novel, The Sisters Brothers, though, this latest book too is haunted by death.
We meet mother and son Frances and Malcolm Price, the protagonists, in the first pages of the novel as they are making an early exit from a party in a brownstone in New York City’s Upper East Side. Their relationship is one built on finely attuned sympathies and deep love. Introduced to them like this, Malcolm peeling off the clingy hostess from Frances, all sorts of alarm bells ring in one’s mind about whether this bond is maybe a bit too close for comfort.
However, as de Witt dexterously moves back and forth in time, peeling off layers in the narrative, we get the back story of this odd duo. The father, who had died 20 years before the novel opens, was Franklin Price, a legal eagle who took on the most questionable of cases and earned millions from distinctly insalubrious sources. His death, of a heart attack, was a tabloid sensation. The story went that on discovering his body, his widow took off to ski, and didn’t report his death.
As the book progresses, you learn that they have been living large on a diminishing fortune. Malcolm is in a state of arrested development his fiancée Susan thinks he is a lugubrious toddler. He doesn’t want to formalise their relationship, doesn’t want to completely move away from his mother, his biggest influence.
And what a mother: at 65, Frances still possesses a vitality that attracts men and women to her like moths to a flame. Late in the novel, waiters in a restaurant think of her as Jackie O, a cold beauty. She’s also on a downward spiral, buying homes, the money all but over and the bank ready to cut off all funds. Her advisor, a dry man with a dry name, Mr Baker, persuades her to sell off her possessions to acquire funds.
On getting those funds, instead of prudently salting it away for the future, Frances on an impulse decides to go to Paris to her friend Joan’s apartment. Malcolm accompanies his mother, leaving behind the long-suffering Susan. Oh, they also take along their cat, Small Frank, without the proper paperwork, a necessary co-traveller since Frances believes that her dead husband lives on in the animal.
Blithe, carefree creatures like Frances and Malcolm can be found in all kinds of fiction. It takes special skill to make such characters empathetic. Yet, de Witt achieves the impossible. You care for this mother and son and would very much like to follow them on their foolhardy cruise ship journey. You still care for them once they are settled in their Parisian apartment and go through days in suspended animation, unable to move forward because of the burden of the past. You even find yourself caring for the secondary characters that now include a dispirited medium, a tongue-tied private investigator and an American expat who latches on to the Prices. Black comedy is clearly deWitt’s forte, no matter what the setting. The Sisters Brothers was a Western suffused with violence. That book had a show-stopping ending involving chemicals, gold prospectors and beavers that will haunt readers long afterwards. French Exit, on the other hand, is a quieter story of love and loss set among the wealthy.
Towards the end of the book, unable to sleep, Frances goes out for a walk and meets a man. She explains she’s looking for the cat that’s run away. Has she, asks the man, looked under the bed? That’s where he always looks for anything he’s lost. When she returns home, Frances does look under the bed, but finds nothing.
Not long after this happens, and after much has changed in his personal circumstances, Malcolm explains how his mother was “overfine” for this world. De Witt pulls away the curtains and shows the beating heart underneath. The rich bleed, too. And no one can escape the Grim Reaper.