French Exit by Patrick deWitt


Recently I noted that Patrick deWitt’s book Sisters Brothers is now a movie. Though I thoroughly enjoyed it as a book, the violence which was only just tolerable in the book will keep me out of the theater. That book was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize; this one came to my attention as a finalist for the Giller Prize. I look forward to reading what the Shadow Giller folks have to say about it at kevinfromcanada.

A French exit is defined as making an early exit without saying goodbye. The reader soon realizes that the end of a book about a 65-year-old woman who has been in the top 1% and is now running out of money is going to be grim. Frances is so rich and unaffected by normal human emotions that her chief concern seems to be to make a stylish exit. I can’t say I was particularly enlightened and I certainly was not uplifted by reading this book. That said, it has its pleasures. The description of the financial adviser who had to explain to the fierce Frances just how dire her circumstances were is an example:

Mr. Baker was a mouselike man, which isn’t to say he behaved as one, but that he truly did look very much like a mouse. Sometimes he looked like an angry mouse, sometimes wise; on this day, as he sat waiting for Frances to arrive, he resembled a mouse who wished he were another mouse.

When her assets were liquidated, her one true friend volunteered her flat in Paris for Frances and her equally unlovable son Malcolm to stay in. Malcolm’s room overlooked a small public park and he watched the park as he would watch television.

In the early mornings there came the professionals, smartly outfitted men and women cutting across the park with stern expressions on their faces. By nine o’clock the immigrants were up and mingling; by ten they had evacuated the park to roam the streets of Paris, that their human needs might be met for another day. After eleven, the park would be filled with children and their nannies, mostly African women who sat in clusters to laugh and tease and argue with one another, while the children were left to scrabble about the jungle gym. By one o’clock the nannies and children would be replaced by clerks, secretaries, and shopkeepers eating their lunches, reading books, smoking cigarettes. This group was particularly nonsocial; they were taking this time just for themselves, treasuring their solitude, their tobacco, the pull of a well-told story. In the early afternoon the nannies and children would return, the children ever more shrill and wild, the nannies calmer, the accrual of the day’s fatigue rendering them duller and less joyful. The late afternoons saw all those who had crossed the park in the morning recrossing in the opposite directions. As the day wound down and the sky grew darker, the immigrants began to trickle back. At night, the park was theirs.

I couldn’t stop reading a book with such well-observed and well-told vignettes, but many of the observations were not so benign as this.

Patrick deWitt, French Exit, Harper Collins, 2018, 244 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public library and from Amazon.

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