Book review – French Exit by Patrick de Witt
© Steven Boykey SIdley
A couple of years ago, I met Canadian novelist Patrick de Witt at a bar at the Athol Fugard Theatre at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. He had recently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel The Sisters Brothers. Like everyone else, I was intrigued to meet a Booker shortlister in the flesh. He was friendly and odd and and a little bewildered and oddly magnetic, fixing people with big, blinking scary eyes. I never read the book. But I came away from the encounter thinking that this was one weird guy who might set your car alight for fun, with you in it, and you might not even mind.
The author is clearly a weird guy and so is this story. Like in upside-down weird. Brilliant weird. Shriekingly funny weird. Off kilter. Whacko. In a genius sort of way. Every character that deadpans his or her way though the action is slightly askew, both in who they are and what they say. But, being both weird and exceptionally talented, the author makes everyone seem completely normal, even when they are most definitely not.
Sentences and paragraphs and dialogue are short and tight and taut in this book.
And so will it be with this review.
New Yorker Grace is 65, a once beautiful socialite, admired and envied and hated, and now bankrupt through profligacy. Glacial, insulting, imperious, near-friendless, aloof. I liked her tremendously, in a horrified sort of way.
Malcolm is her 32 year old son. He is friendless. He has no ambitions. He doesn’t care about much at all. His fiancé is leaving him. He is droll and dry and floats around doing little. I liked him tremendously too.
He lives with his mother in their palatial apartment. They talk by phone from their respective rooms.
His father and Grace’s ex-husband, Frank Price, from whose businesses their wealth originally sprung is long gone, having flown the coup decades earlier. And now dead. Yet he inhabits the book. I want to say in a weird way, but that would be understating.
So Grace and Malcolm flee their financial woes in NY and flee to Paris.
With their cat, Little Frank.
And there they find out that that Frank Price, late father and husband, has taken robust re-incarnated residency inside the cat’s head. And said cat has now disappeared into the parks and alleys of Paris. De Witt makes this seem absolutely natural, I swear. I didn’t even blink when this came to light. I said, oh, that’s interesting.
And there they assemble a menagerie in their apartment – a medium who can contact missing cats and can see people who are about to die and a Private Investigator who really isn’t very a good one and a lonely Parisian lady seeing friends and the NY ex-fiancé of Malcolm and her new beau (now in Paris) where they drink a great deal and…, oh God, de Witt is just one weird mofo. Brilliant and funny, did I mention? But so weird (I may have mentioned) that my face looked like a Picasso portrait by the end of the book.
De Witt is clearly off his rocker. I mean this in the nicest possible way, of course.
And weirdly, I really loved this book.