French Exit (DeWitt)

French Exit 
Patrick deWitt, 2018
256 pp.

A brilliant and darkly comic novel about a wealthy widow and her adult son who flee New York for Paris in the wake of scandal and financial disintegration.

Frances Price—tart widow, possessive mother, and Upper East Side force of nature—is in dire straits, beset by scandal and impending bankruptcy.

Her adult son Malcolm is no help, mired in a permanent state of arrested development.

And then there’s the Price’s aging cat, Small Frank, who Frances believes houses the spirit of her late husband, an infamously immoral litigator and world-class cad whose gruesome tabloid death rendered Frances and Malcolm social outcasts.

Putting penury and pariahdom behind them, the family decides to cut their losses and head for the exit. One ocean voyage later, the curious trio land in their beloved Paris, the City of Light serving as a backdrop not for love or romance, but self destruction and economical ruin—to riotous effect.

A number of singular characters serve to round out the cast: a bashful private investigator, an aimless psychic proposing a seance, and a doctor who makes house calls with his wine merchant in tow, to name a few. 

Brimming with pathos, French Exit is a one-of-a-kind "tragedy of manners," a send-up of high society, as well as a moving mother/son caper which only Patrick deWitt could conceive and execute. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
Awards—Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction Writers' Trust of Canada Fiction Prize, Rogers Prize, Stephen Leacock Award
Currently—lives in Portland, Oregon, USA

Patrick deWitt is a Canadian novelist and screenwriter. He was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and later lived in California and Washington. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

His first book, Ablutions (2009), was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice book. His second book, The Sisters Brothers (2011), was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and the 2011 Governor General's Award for English language fiction. He was one of two Canadian writers, alongside Esi Edugyan, to make all four award lists in 2011.

On November 1, 2011, he was announced as the winner of the Rogers Prize, and on November 15, 2011, he was announced as the winner of Canada's 2011 Governor General's Award for English language fiction. On April 26, 2012, the book The Sisters Brothers won the 2012 Stephen Leacock Award. Alongside Edugyan, The Sisters Brothers was also a shortlisted nominee for the 2012 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/7/2013.)

Book Reviews
The comic brilliance that sparked deWitt’s earlier adventures ignites this "tragedy of manners" and Frances Price, "a moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years," is revealed to be another of deWitt’s sublime eccentrics.… Rarely has a transatlantic voyage and its limited diversions been so pithily evoked.
Anna Mundow - Washington Post

A modern story, a satire about an insouciant widow on a quest for refined self-immolation.… DeWitt’s surrealism is cheerful and matter-of-fact, making the novel feel as buoyantly insane as its characters.… DeWitt is a stealth absurdist, with a flair for dressing up rhyme as reason.
Katy Waldman - The New Yorker

A sparkling dark comedy that channels both Noel Coward’s wit and Wes Anderson’s loopy sensibility. DeWitt’s tone is breezy, droll, and blithely transgressive.… These are people you may not want to invite to dinner, but they sure make for fun reading.
Heller McAlpin - NPR

Hilarious.… Delightful.… In his book, as in [Edith] Wharton’s, New Yorkers’ wit and elaborate manners cannot hide the searing depth of their pain.… DeWitt is aiming for farce and to say something about characters who cannot get out of their own way, and he achieves both with elan.
Minneapolis Star Tribune

[A] riotous tragedy of (ill) manners.… The show stealer here is deWitt’s knack for scene setting and dialogue in the form of Frances’ wry one-liners.… That Frances sure is a force to contend with. But what a classy broad.
San Francisco Chronicle

Darkly comic.… French Exit is both a satiric send-up of high society and a wilding mother-son caper.
Poets & Writers

[DeWitt] creates and conveys entire worlds—and not just names and places, but colors, smells, sounds and style.… Incredibly entertaining and oddly sympathetic.… And snappy stage-worthy dialogue—deWitt’s wheelhouse.
Eugene Register-Guard

[E]ntertaining.… DeWitt’s novel is full of vibrant characters taking good-natured jabs at cultural tropes; readers will be delighted.
Publishers Weekly

Whatever you do, don’t mess with Frances Price.… An entertaining portrait of people who are obsessed with the looming specter of death and who don’t quite feel part of the time they were born into.

"They're not normal people": an entertaining romp among the disaffected bourgeoisie..… [S]harply observed moments give deWitt's well-written novel more depth than the usual comedy of manners.… [A] bright, original yarn with a surprising twist.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for FRENCH EXIT … then take off on your own:

1. Patrick deWitt's French Exit is subtitled "A Tragedy of Manners." What does the subtitle mean?

2. Follow-up to Question 1: Despite the subtitle, there is much that is funny in this novel. What made you laugh (or chuckle)? In what way is this book also "a comedy of manners"—a genre that satirizes the hypocrisy of the privileged: people who value appearance over substance?

3. Katy Waldman in The New Yorker considers the opening sequence of French Exit a sort of tour de force. What do we learn in the first several pages about Frances Price and her son Malcolm? Does your attitude toward them change over the course of the novel? Do they elicit sympathy from you …or disgust …or laughter …or eye-rolling or… anything in particular?

4. "Do you know what a cliche is?" Frances asks her friend Joan. "It's a story so fine and thrilling that it's grown old in its hopeful retelling." What does she mean? How would you define cliche? And why does Frances bring up cliches in the first place?

5. What do we come to learn about the Price's marriage and about Malcolm's childhood? What kind of man was Franklin Price, and what was his relationship to—and the effect he had on—those closest to him?

6. Do the characters ever achieve true intimacy in the novel? Do they ever break out of deWitt's witty dialogue and narration?

7. Talk about the novel's conclusion, especially the twist at the end? What do you think will become of Malcolm?

8. Oh, and Small Frank? Care to comment?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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